The sensible Czech attitude to children and their safety

The Vltava River and Charles Bridge © Ricky Yates

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.

10 comments to The sensible Czech attitude to children and their safety

  • It sounds like those vehicles are a ”Bubenec Plague.”

    My first week in Prague two years ago, I walked into a Billa grocery store and was astonished to see that a mother had left her baby in the pram at the front of the store while she ran and got a couple of items.

    Assuming that the mother would never put her child knowingly in harm’s way, I was left to marvel, not at her carelessness, but rather my own culture’s deep brainwashing of living in fear OF EVERYTHING!

    I’m with you in hoping that Czech people don’t get this constant fear injected into them.

    • Ricky

      Hi Karen,

      I like your play on words and there is quite a bit of truth in your analogy! And I’m with you regarding the brainwashing of yours & my culture into living in fear of everything and not allowing children to be children. It is one more reason why I prefer to live in the Czech Republic rather than in the UK.

  • Russell

    Hi Ricky

    I have just found your blog and it is absolutely delightful. I am English and my Mum is Czech and my Gran lives in Prague 6 so I can completely relate to your posts about the beautiful Sarka valley area and the cheap food and transport. I remember eating in the excellent pizza restaurant (opposite Billa) on Jugoslavskych Partyzanu and this cost about 1000 kc for several of us which I thought was very reasonable because of the fantastic quality and the fact it was a few years ago when the exchange rate was more favourable (for us Brits!)

    My Mum would always walk to school from a very young age (she went to Interbridagy school and she would have had to cross some busy roads like Jugoslavskych Partyzanu and Terronska which runs adjacent to JP and didn’t have traffic lights when my mum was a girl). I know that Czech parents have a much more relaxed attitude to their children and actually let them be children and have a childhood. In the UK the attitude increasingly feels like you should suspect anybody who encounters your children to potentially be a paedophile; when as you say it is very rare for a complete stranger to abuse a child.

    When I went to primary school a lot of children travelled to school by car and there was a lot of congestion as the school was in a residential area. Because so many people went by car the minority who walked found it dangerous and I’m sure some people travelled by car because they felt their children would be safer than walking (particularly if their children walked by themselves). Paradoxically though there is more risk of being involved in an accident in a car than on the pavement. Obviously, in the US the situation with car usage is even worse but the excellent and cheap transport system in Prague makes it much easier for families to travel around.

    The issue of paranoia in western societies is one of the reasons why I prefer life in the Czech Republic in comparison to the UK. In the Czech Republic there is definitely much more opportunity to actually enjoy being a child and I hope it stays that way 🙂 Russell

    • Ricky

      Hi Russell,
      Thank you for your detailed & complimentary comments. I concur with all the sentiments you express. You are quite right to highlight the number of cars that end up outside UK Primary Schools thus making life difficult & dangerous to those children who do walk. The whole thing is self-perpetuating. “My child is no longer safe walking because of all the cars therefore I’ll take my child by car too”!

      The ‘excellent pizza restaurant’ you mention that is opposite the Billa supermarket is ‘Pizzaria Grosetto’ which has received previous mentions in this blog.‘more-problems-with-czech-bureaucracy
      I know what you mean about the drop in the value of the pound sterling against the Czech crown. A British lady in my congregation who is married to a Czech, told me that it was 45 Kc to the £ when she got married rather than the current 30 Kc.

  • Ricky this is one of the things that is really driving me nuts about the UK at the moment. I’m only 24, but when I was a child (now I’m sounding about 44) of about 10 years of age I would happily walk a few miles across town in the mornings without any supervision.

    Doing this as a kid was fantastic, for a start it made me very healthy (I would later on in my youth run for the county in a number of events) and more than anything it gave me a great sense of freedom and also responsibility.

    Not once did I run into trouble or get abducted. I fear that the red top newspapers seem so eager to report each and everyone of the horror stories – which is fair enough, yet statistics say that there has not been any rise in such activity.. this is something they do not point out the parents.

    How many kids are being deprived of a proper childhood with a lot of independence and also that vital exercise that so few of them seem to be getting. I remember being out kicking a football about for as long as I could each evening, yet I don’t see many young children out there today.

    It really is such a shame – I know when I have children they will be allowed to go and enjoy the wonders of life, the small chance of them getting into trouble is no reason to take away the best part of their lives.

    • Ricky

      John – As with my previous commenter Russell, I concur with everything you say. Yes – the red top tabloids are very good at sensationalising any case of child abduction simply because it sells newspapers. But as you rightly say, there has been no rise in this sort of activity & it remains extremely rare.

  • Karin Shepherd

    I suspect most of us “older generation” can remember the freedom of our childhood. When visting the States (Oregon) my husband and I took a drive out into the countryside. At one point, my husband pointed to a bridge and a small river and said, “That is where my brothers and I rode our bikes to go swimming”! He was about 9 or 10 years old! This bridge was about 7 miles from his home! Can you imagine letting your child today do that? Of course, the road back in those days was a small back road with few cars, but to let your boys go for the day….how wonderful for them!

    As a young girl my favourite “play” was to get a long stick, tie a red bandana with my lunch wrapped inside it onto the end, put it over my shoulder and be a “hobo”. Then I would wander off into the nearby hillside and look at nature and only had to make sure I got home by suppertime!

    Both of these events were in the early 1950’s. Why have things changed so?

    It is so nice to know that it hasn’t changed everywhere. On the island of Paros where we live children still have that freedom to be kids. They roam the countryside, they play on the beaches where they fly kites, they climb trees or ride bicycles or just plain walk.

    Paros is very touristy in summer, and everyone heads for the beachside tavernas for late night dinners and conversation. Where are the children? On the beach playing in the moonlight…or if a teenager, walking around talking or if an “in betweener” they ride there bicycles around the main square. No one interfers with them. The older kids watch the younger ones so parents can eat and talk to their friends. It is simply wonderful! This goes on night after night. (I am talking from 8 – midnight!!). There has NEVER been an incident. It is not even thought of. Their has been a little concern about their teenagers getting drugs, but the police really come down on that, and the consequences are not worth the risk of shaming the family!

    This is a long “comment”, but I agree, today’s kids in many countries have no childhood as we remember it. Guess all children should a move to either the Czech Republic or Greece! Ha, ha.

    GREAT blog, Ricky. Really gets people to thinking.

  • Ricky

    Hi Karin – your long comment is most welcome & thanks for the compliments. Like both you & Michael, I had a great freedom to play outdoors & go off cycling many miles from home as I grew up in the late 1950s and as a teenager in the 1960s. And through doing that, I gained and learned so much and was remarkably fit, slim and healthy!

  • Thanks again Ricky. Every time I read one of your posts it gives me a sense of peace. I lived in Germany for 6 years and I think that I just miss the “Old World” common sense that is over there. The culture over here in the US is so young and ungrounded…we tend to worship the new instead of valuing the old. What we in the New World think of as the “Western Culture” can often be better expressed as the “Western Uncouthness”. I thank you again for penning a unique perspective and sharing it with the world.

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