We’ve all heard the super annoying stereotype: European children are so much better behaved than feral American kids. They don’t throw food, they sleep through the night at eight weeks, and they eat all the rare and “adult” foods they are offered.
But how true is it, really?
In 2012, my husband and I moved from Brooklyn to Vienna, Austria, for his job. I promptly got pregnant, which gave us a chance to test out all these theories for myself firsthand. Over the next four years, we were swiftly indoctrinated into European parenting life.
The situation was far from easy; I had to adjust to life as a parent while living an ocean away from everyone and everything I knew, for starters. And then, you know, there were the little things, like needing to communicate with everyone from the pediatrician to the grocer in German. But some of the fabled aspects of European life were, actually, well, glorious: the wine that often flowed freely at playground playdates, the fresh bread from the local bakery after school, the year-long maternity leave, the free healthcare, the subsidized daycare.
We learned a lot about parenting in that family-friendly country, but the most important lesson I learned was this:
You can expect a lot of your children.
Now, before you think of me as some Tiger Mom (I’m the furthest thing from, ask my husband!), let me explain. I’m not saying that Viennese babies don’t cry, have meltdowns or run around in public like maniacs. Nor am I saying that all Viennese kids eat spicy olives, stinky cheese, and beef carpaccio. I’m not saying these babies sleep through the night (they don’t anymore than American babies do — and no one I knew there sleep-trained but us) or that children sit quietly through dinner while the adults talk, chiming in only to ask, “May I please be excused?”
Instead, what I’m saying is this: In general, the parenting I saw centered around the belief that we can have high expectations of our children from a young age. This didn’t mean keeping little ones up until all hours or depriving them of middle-of-the-night feedings or stroller snacks (all children ate snacks in strollers). It didn’t mean a lot of disciplining, either. It simply meant enforcing certain basic rules of civility — over and over again. In other words: not letting the kids run the roost. It’s a mindset as much as it is a code of rules.
So, when our family moved back to the U.S. when our daughter was three, we tried to keep the spirit of this parenting style alive in all kinds of small ways — like by remembering things like…
- Kids can sit at a table — and stay there. Generally, in Vienna, one did not see kids roaming around with food in hand, or eating a bite, running off, and then coming back for more. During my daughter’s first few weeks in daycare there (she was 14 months), I watched as the teachers taught the kids to eat only while seated. The eight toddlers would gather around a tiny table for a snack, and when they inevitably wandered off, bread in hand, the teachers would gently coax them back to the table. “We eat here,” they’d say. No punishment, no big deal, just: this is the way we do this. Eventually the kids understood that you cannot play with blocks with apple slices clenched in both fists.
Now, at 6, our daughter rarely wanders off while eating, but if she does, we tell her that leaving the table means that the meal is over and the food will be packed up/put away for tomorrow. Snacks happen sitting down, too. (Yes, she gets them in the car, but when we are home or at the park, I do not allow snacking and playing at once.)
- Kids can (and must) greet strangers politely. Austrian culture is absolutely berserk over hellos and goodbyes. You literally cannot leave a store without saying goodbye to everyone six times in three different ways. Kids are no exception. They are taught to say hello and goodbye when they enter or leave a space, and it’s considered rude to ignore this ritual. Just because they’re little doesn’t mean they can live in their own worlds.
- Kids can handle being in restaurants. Yes, this is one of the stereotypes — the well-behaved two-year-old who doesn’t throw food and can actually eat with a fork and knife. But it was a real thing. Everywhere we went in Vienna, kids were sitting with their parents as they drank Aperol Spritz and enjoyed their pizza. Sure, not every kid was quiet — and we did our fair share of walking around the block until the food came — but restaurants, in general, were not full of screaming banshees (nor were they full of kids on their parents’ phones). This is not only because the kids are taught to actually sit at school and at home, but also because it is part of the culture to accommodate families in restaurants. Often there is space for strollers, sometimes there’s even a play area, no one gives you side-eye for nursing, and restaurants aren’t seen as some sort of exclusive place for adults.
At 6 this isn’t really an issue anymore, but we still come equipped with activities and expect our daughter to stay seated until everyone is done eating.
- Kids don’t need your attention every second, especially on the playground. In Europe it was exceedingly rare to see a mother hovering over her child in a public space, other than when absolutely needed for safety reasons. Of course when the kids were little we weren’t letting them topple off the slides or anything, but it was more common to see two women sitting on a park bench enjoying their chatting time than huddled inside the sandpit with their toddler.
These days, I still try to sit far away and let her work out her own problems on the playground. Of course this is easier now that she’s older, but this has always been my guiding principle.
- Little kids can use utensils from age 1 — and clean up after themselves. Walk into a school or restaurant over there and you’ll see very small children wielding utensils, not shoving food into their mouths with their hands. I was shocked when I first watched my toddler and her friends at daycare eat goulash with spoons, and then, one by one, get up and clear their plates and cutlery (into different bins!) all by themselves. This kind of behavior — both the eating with utensils and the cleaning up — is instilled from the moment they have an awareness of what it means to eat with others.
- Kids can get used to walking. A lot. Okay, so this one is particular to European cities where people tend to get around by public transportation, but most kids were eager to get out of their strollers and onto their feet, scooters, or bikes. Sure, you’d sometimes see dads with kids on their shoulders on the weekends, but by and large, little kids (3, 4, 5) were getting around without expecting a ride.
When we moved back to the U.S., some of these lessons proved harder to hold onto than others. For example, we now live in L.A. where no one walks and public transportation isn’t robust, so it’s hard to reinforce that one here. But to be honest, this stuff mostly came up when she saw other kids doing things differently, like when her friends would run around while snacking. If they could, why couldn’t she?! (Fair question.) Obviously most of these lessons are easier to uphold in our own home than out and about, but we try to do it wherever we are.
Oh, and as for my kid’s European eating habits? In typical fashion, while in Vienna, she ate everything she was offered: goulash, Schnitzel, roasted chicken and zucchinis, paté, soft-boiled eggs, smoked salmon. Now all she’ll eat? Pasta, pizza, and burgers. You can’t win ‘em all.