A really pleasant sight here in the Czech Republic is to see children, some probably no more than seven years old, making their way from home to school and back again on their own! They do this on foot or combine it with the use of public transport. It is such a throwback to my own childhood when I too nearly always took myself to primary school either by walking there or travelling on the bus. Yet now in the UK, (and I gather also in the USA and many other western countries), hardly any parents allow this to happen because of fears regarding their children’s safety.
It isn’t just to school and back. Here in Prague, I often see children and young people in the late afternoon or early evening, making their own way back home from their sports club, dancing class or music lesson, also without a parent in sight. And the corollary of this – rarely do I ever see an obese child!
In the past twenty years or so in the UK, there has been a massive rise in concern for the safety of children, both with regard to the amount of traffic on the roads, together with a small number of highly publicised cases of child abduction, resulting in parents now driving their children everywhere. This inevitably compounds the amount of traffic on the roads together with many children getting very little physical exercise.
Another refreshing difference in attitude between the Czech Republic and the UK & USA was very clearly illustrated to us just over a year ago. The 6th December is Svaty Mikuláš/St. Nicholas Day. Each year on the evening of 5th December Svaty Mikuláš Eve, there is a Czech tradition of children dressing up as the Bishop/St. Nicholas, together with other children dressing up as angels and one as a devil. This website explains more.
On the evening of 5th December 2009, we walked around Staromestské námestí/Old Town Square where there were many children dressed up in the Svaty Mikuláš tradition. Most were accompanied by their parents, but what astounded both of us was that these parents were happily encouraging complete strangers to take photographs of their children dressed up in their outfits. In the UK, such is the paranoia about paedophilia that many schools do not even allow parents to take photographs of their own children in school drama productions, for fear of the photographs ending up in the hands of paedophiles.
I do not in any way want to belittle the incredible damage done to children who are abused by paedophiles. But research shows that nearly all child abuse is carried out by adults the children already know, be it their mother’s new boyfriend or a longstanding so-called friend of the family. Very rarely is a child abducted or abused by a complete stranger.
One further relaxed attitude we noticed last summer. On a couple of occasions on my day off when the weather was very hot and sunny, we drove south from Prague to the lake behind the Slapy Dam. Near the little village of Ždán, we visited a grassy ‘beach’ where it is possible to sunbathe and swim in the lake. Here we saw children, some up to seven or eight years old, happily paddling at the water’s edge, totally naked. Shock-horror as far as many Americans are concerned!
It was so nice to see children relaxed and being allowed to play au naturel, without being made to wear something. In particular, not to have little girls made to wear bikini tops to cover non-existent breasts, thus sexualising them before they have even reached puberty.
As far as I am concerned – long may these attitudes and practices continue. Yet sadly, I do see some children being driven to and from school by their mothers in a 4×4, SUV, or ‘Chelsea Tractor’. Mostly these are expat families with children who attend the various international schools here in Prague. But some are wealthy Czechs who, for whatever reason, are beginning to adopt the relatively recent practices of the UK and USA. Sybille has taken to calling such vehicles ‘Bubenec Tractors’, after the nearby suburb where many diplomatic and wealthy Czech families live!
Sadly, there has also been a recent case of a young child called Anna Janatkova, disappearing whilst walking home from school. Because this event is so unusual, it has rightly received a large amount of publicity, unfortunately so far without a positive result.
I do hope that the practices and attitudes I have described in this blogpost, do continue and that increasing affluence and this recent extremely rare case of a child disappearing, do not bring about unwanted change. Because what I observe, are children who have a far greater degree of self-confidence than I see in many British children. And children who, almost without exception, are not overweight.