Childhood in Austria (Release the Leash Kids)

Living in another country is quite the experience, in both positive and negative ways. A friend of mine, who was an American living in Bolivia, said that not living abroad was like only reading one chapter of the book of life. Or something like that. Either way, I agree heartily with his sentiment. On my fourth continent now, I love pretending to be a cultural anthropologist and seeing the differences between my cheesesteak-eating, football-watching, drive-thru loving, redwhiteandblue Americaness and everybody else.

Here in Austria, what has struck me the most is how children are raised. Kids here are given the space and freedom to develop much more independence at an earlier age than our American kiddos. After years of working in the overly litigious American education system, when I first arrived, I was taken aback when I saw packs of 10 year olds playing together alone…at dusk! WHO is supervising these kids?- I cried to E in disbelief. No one, he said. And it was fine. I took a minute a realized that this was still ok here. Kids take public transit to school by themselves and they go to play in the park with their friends and no one gets kidnapped, no one gets hurt, it’s normal.

Every morning, I take a 5 year old boy and his 4 year old sister to kindergarten. One morning, their mother told me they were going iceskating with their class and I needed to bring them to a different building. I was surprised that a kindergarten would foolishly endeavor to bring a flock of 4 to 6 year olds, who have poor gross motor skills as is, to a large sheet of slippery ice, put them in boots with knives on the bottoms, and expect not to get sued. Their mother laughed off my concern saying they’re not very good so it tires them out. As I thought about it, I agreed with her reasoning but my reaction was trained into me from working in schools and summer camps stateside where if a kid falls off the monkey bars and gets a bruise, guess what, nobody gets to play on the monkey bars anymore.

Meanwhile, in America, a Maryland mother was arrested for leaving her 8 and 9 year olds alone for a whopping 45 minutes while she left to get takeout food. From my research, most states in the U.S. don’t even have a law on the books that states a specific age that children can be left alone. Maaaaaaaybe, that’s because the people who would know best when their children are able to stay home alone would be their own parents.

During one of my English classes, I told my adults students my surprise at how Austrian kids run freely and take public transport (there are no school buses) like it’s NBD. They blinked and shrugged because it isn’t. I told them of the disturbingly high number of parents in the U.S. who have been arrested, and some charged with child endangerment, for leaving their kids at home. They did not believe me until I brought up some articles like the one above. Even the woman I dog sit for, who has a 5 year old of her own, did not believe it even though she lived in South Chicago for 4+ years.

I was a latchkey kid with my younger brother Tyler and I now fondly remember the long gone days where we would run down the hill from the bus stop, drop our backpacks at home, and get lost in the woods around our neighborhood for hours. Bike riding, making forts, eating honeysuckles, getting in quickly forgotten arguments with the neighborhood kids about who was best at whatever game we were playing at the time.

I’m not trying to argue that nothing bad happens when you leave children unattended for long periods of time. That’s just not true. When I was 9, I was bike riding alone, without a helmet, and decided to experiment with the physics of “how fast can I ride down this hill and what will happen if I don’t brake before I hit the speed bump”? I realized the fault of my initial hypothesis when I came to in the middle of the street having flipped myself over the handlebars and knocked myself out on the pavement.

And, are some children too young or too immature to be on their own until their older? Yes, of course. That’s why Tyler and his friends were supervised and fed by me every summer while all of our parents were at work. Mom and Dad thought it best not to leave him in charge of using the gas stove. Wise.

However, developing brains need to learn how to interact with the world and take risks so they have confidence as adults. Learning responsibility and having freedom cannot be a bad thing for a young mind. Seeing pictures later in life of you as a leash kid most definitely is though.

(Featured image from



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