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How to be a Norwegian parent: let your kids roam free, stay home alone, have fun – and fail | Norway

It’s 1.30pm. Nila and Arion arrive home after finishing school for the day. They let themselves in, make some food, then sit down to do homework, or practise piano, or do the housework they’ve been asked to do. Their parents won’t be home for a few hours yet. The children sometimes go out with friends to play in the street or wander the fields. The only real rule is no screen time unless everything else has been taken care of.

So far, so normal, perhaps, except the sister and brother are just 10 and eight, and they’ve been living this kind of unsupervised mini-adult life for years.

They live in Stavanger, on the south-west coast of Norway. Like all of their friends, they’ve been walking to and from school alone since they first attended at the age of six. They were given their own set of house keys soon after. This is the parenting way in Norway – it’s decidedly free-range, with an emphasis on independence, self-determination and responsibility, with a dash of outdoor fun thrown in for good measure.

I’ve known Nila and Arion since they were born (their parents are close friends), and I have consistently marvelled at the space and freedom they are given. On my visits to their home, I can never help but compare their upbringing with the way I and millions of other Britons were raised. While not exactly repressive or restrictive, 80s British parenting didn’t value autonomy in the same way. I certainly didn’t get my own chef’s knife for my eighth birthday, as Nila did a couple of years ago. She puts it to good use; she’s solely responsible for cooking dinner for the family one night a week.

(From left) Giancarlo, Nila, Lena and Arion at their home. Photograph: Marie von Krogh/The Guardian

“I can’t think of anyone who doesn’t parent like this,” says Nila and Arion’s dad, Giancarlo Napoli. He recalls one child in Nila’s class whose parents moved to another town a few years back. Rather than switch schools, this child now walks 20 minutes from his home to the train station, takes a 20-minute train journey, then has another 20-minute walk at the other end from the station to school. “This kid does that twice a day, and no one bats an eyelid,” he says. (On a related note, Norwegian children as young as seven have been known to make solo journeys from one end of Norway to the other to visit their divorced parents.)

Giancarlo is British, and moved to Stavanger in 2006 after meeting his Norwegian wife, Lena, while travelling. He teaches at a nearby college and is now a fully integrated member of Norwegian society – and a paid-up member of the free-range parenting club. But he admits it did take him some time to adjust.

Of course, free-range parenting does rather fit in with perceptions outsiders often have about Scandinavian people. Look at them all, with their hygge, and their sky-high living standards, low crime rates, enviable maternity and paternity rights and exceptional aesthetics. Norway is indeed seventh on the World Happiness Report. It also has the world’s 10th highest GDP, along with the world’s largest wealth fund and one of the world’s lowest crime rates. But this is a philosophy that runs deeper than Norway’s pockets, and it’s been around far longer than the country’s well-funded public services have.

There’s evidence that Viking children as far back as the ninth century were raised in a relatively similar way: treated as adults and expected to chip in with whatever work needed to be done. It’s a way of life, deeply ingrained to the point that most Norwegians I’ve spoken to can’t understand either the fascination with their method, or why anyone would do it differently.

This more nuanced modern take – more conversations about feelings, less pillaging – rose to prominence in the aftermath of the second world war, says Willy-Tore Mørch, emeritus professor in children’s mental health at the University of Tromsø. Much of the country’s infrastructure had been devastated by the years of Nazi occupation. Rising to the challenge, the newly formed Labour government believed that all Norwegians should contribute to the rebuilding – children included.

“The children had to be strong and hardened, and trained to be independent and loyal,” says Mørch. “Perhaps most parents today are not aware of this history, but building trust between parents and children remains a basic relational quality in modern Norwegian child-raising.”

There is also another, more practical reason underpinning some of this parenting style. “Most women here work,” says Mette Tveit, a curator and historian at Stavanger Museum. Norway has among the most gender-equal workforces, with about 73% of all men of working age in employment, and about 67% of women. Childcare is also widely available and highly affordable, meaning that going out to work is financially worthwhile. For example, kindergarten fees for 10 hours a day, five days a week, are capped at NOK 2,000 (£150) a month. In the UK, the average cost for under-twos in full-time childcare is £300 a week.

‘Building trust between parents and children remains a basic quality in Norway’ … Willy-Tore Mørch. Photograph: David Jensen

Tveit adds that Norwegian children are, in her experience, so independent that they organise their own playdates with peers. “I spend time in the US and I see how the parents arrange those things, but in Norway, even young children will organise their social events and manage their spare time. They just get on with things. It’s normal for Norwegian children to tell their parents what they’re doing; it’s not that normal to ask permission. They are just trusted to make good decisions.”

Trust is something that comes up when I talk to Giancarlo and Lena about their parenting, and how mutual respect is crucial. In the school holidays, for example, they’re happy for Nila and Arion to be out all day as long as they know roughly what time they’ll return – and the children comply. Lena says this is how her mother and grandmother were raised, and fondly remembers going to school herself as a six-year-old with a front door key around her neck on a piece of string. She also thinks this way of parenting should be preserved, despite the temptation to introduce technology into the equation.

“You can get GPS watches for kids, where you can track them and so on,” she says. “(But) it’s really important to me that it’s not a fake sense of freedom that we give the children. There was one time we thought Nila had gone missing, and even though I know if she’d had one of those watches we could’ve just checked to see where she was and not been worried, that’s not the point.”

It turns out Nila had been playing out with a friend when the friend’s grandparent invited them indoors for a drink and an iced bun and she had simply lost track of time. “It was important for her to see we were worried, and she’s never done it again,” says Lena.

Failure, it seems, is a big part of Norwegian parenting – enjoy the freedom to make mistakes, but learn from them. There’s a tacit understanding that yes, you can climb that tree, but you might fall and hurt yourself. Or maybe falling will make you a better climber in future?

There’s a tacit understanding that yes, you can climb that tree, but you might fall and hurt yourself. Photograph: Marie von Krogh/The Guardian

The usual safety features parents of other nationalities might install in their home are normally lacking in Norway, too. Giancarlo says that while log-burners are almost standard issue, he can’t remember seeing a guard around one, while stair gates are unusual. “We probably should’ve had a safety gate at the top of the stairs, but we didn’t – we just told the kids not to go down them. Just as we said: ‘Don’t touch the log-burner, it’s very hot.’” There is perhaps another piece to be written about Norwegians being strict conformists. For that, let’s blame Janteloven, an unofficial moral code that seems to guide Nordic countries. In summary – following rules: good; exceptionalism: bad.

Mørch says the Norwegian parenting style cannot be understood without assessing the influence of the psychologist Åse Gruda Skard. Skard was a famous figure in postwar Norway, where she appeared on radio programmes and in newspapers to spread her groundbreaking ideas on “free child-rearing” as a response to the authoritarianism seen before and during the war.

“The US had Benjamin Spock, and we had Skard,” says Mørch. “She strongly opposed a punishment-oriented parenting style, instead teaching parents to look at things from the child’s perspective, to ask: what does the child experience in this situation? What does the child understand now? How can I help the child to understand what’s going on? How can I support the child in this situation?”

As much as I admire the way my friends have raised their children – both of them kind, inquisitive, fun and well-mannered – as a recent new parent, these techniques remain aspirational for the most part, and I can’t imagine adopting many of them myself. I’m all for having a rugged, outdoorsy child who can cook, but I’m not so sure about my future five-year-old returning home to tell me he’d been working on his stick whittling and knife skills at his London nursery – as preschoolers do here in Stavanger.

According to Justine Roberts, the CEO of Mumsnet, I’m not alone in my admiration for the Nordic way of parenting, or my reticence in trying it myself. “Generally, users like the freedom that children have in the Scandi way of doing things, and the fact that it can all contribute to a healthier lifestyle with more outside play. There’s also a feeling that children are more integrated into society,” she says.

“But I think, over the years, UK society has become more risk averse. If you just look at the way attitudes to outside play have changed over the last generation, it’s very clear that parents are more reluctant to take on even the smallest risk.”

Roberts believes British parents became more scared of unsupervised outdoor play sometime in the early 90s, and blames the decade’s breathless media coverage of the threats posed by paedophiles, violent crime and road traffic accidents. “The crime rate is definitely a factor,” she says. “Most mums agree that it just wouldn’t be possible to parent like that here. It’s a shame because giving kids freedom to run around with their friends outside seems to have many advantages – for the children and their parents.”

Talking of what’s possible, there’s a saying in Norwegian: Det finnes ikke dårlig vær, bare dårlige klær (“There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing”). And it starts in kindergarten, where children are sent with a range of equipment and clothing for anything the climate can throw at them. And know this – they will be outside at some point during the day, whatever the weather.

“When we are outside, we encourage the children to try to get over obstacles, climb rocks and walk on rough terrain,” says Hanne Myhre, who works as a pedagogical leader in a kindergarten in Stavanger, caring for children. “This improves the children’s motor skills, and we find that they become more robust and independent. Sometimes they fall and maybe hurt themselves, but they are comforted by the staff and after a while we can encourage them to try again.” Myhre adds that children are expected to dress themselves (with support, if needed) from the age of two.

For her, the key to the Norwegian model, particularly in Stavanger, is the number of smaller kindergartens and schools located in each neighbourhood, meaning that while children do travel to and from school alone, it is usually a relatively short walk. “Of course, it helps that there is low crime,” she says. “And we trust other people, but we are not naive. As well as all the other lessons, we also teach children not to go anywhere with strangers and we practise safe walking in traffic.”

The low crime rate and close proximity of homes to schools helps children with their independence. Photograph: Marie von Krogh/The Guardian

She believes instilling these skills helps foster independence, but boosts confidence, too, leading to mature adolescents and steady, grounded adults with a head for decision-making. That was the consensus among everyone I spoke to for this piece, although it is, of course, difficult to know which of the traits someone has in adulthood came from the way they were raised and which came from elsewhere, just as it’s impossible to tell how someone might have turned out if they had been raised in a different way.

For most Norwegians, though, this is a way of life, and not something that is endlessly questioned or even really observed, although there are naysayers.

“This parenting style has been exposed to criticism in the past 10 to 15 years,” says Prof Mørch. “Just as ‘curling parents’ (who sweep away any obstacles for the child), ‘helicopter parents’ (who monitor their child all the time) and ‘cotton parents’ (who pack their child in cotton wool to prevent any accident) have been criticised.”

Critics of free-range parenting, he says, have called for more limit-setting, but he strongly disagrees, arguing that free-range children will learn all they need to about the world without unnecessary intervention. “They do not need parents to organise their problems.”

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