Submitted by Clare O’Dea, Author of The Naked Swiss: A Nation Behind 10 Myths
One of the first things I noticed about Swiss parents when I came to live in Switzerland was how they encouraged, or if necessary forced, their young children to greet guests properly. Bemused, I would find myself shaking hands with two-year-olds when I arrived at friends’ homes for dinner. There is no doubt that Switzerland is a safe and nurturing place for children but high expectations can also put pressure on families. So how much effort is involved for Swiss parents in delivering the ideal Swiss childhood? Let’s take a look at 10 things Swiss parents do differently.
1. A good start:
The quality of maternal and baby healthcare in Switzerland is second to none. From the moment their babies are born, Swiss mothers are surrounded by comforting expert help from people with time to spare. There is no rush to send new mothers home from the hospital. Time is taken to help get breastfeeding established if desired. And in most cases, it is desired. According to a 2015 Swiss Infant Feeding Study, 95 percent of mothers in Switzerland were breastfeeding after birth. Almost two-thirds exclusively breastfed in the first three to four months, way ahead of most other European countries.
2. Keep it in the family:
Swiss parents are generally reluctant to hand their children over to childcare providers. This may have something to do with the history of children who were taken away from poor parents by the authorities in the not very distant past. There is a still a feeling that a successful family does not rely on outside help. Grandparent care is very common, and mothers of young children rarely work full time (13%). More fathers are reducing their working hours too. Daycare is very expensive and most children only attend for two or three days per week. More than that and the parents, if not financially pressed to work, risk being seen as selfish.
3. Second-hand delights:
Swiss children, like all children in prosperous societies, accumulate an awful lot of stuff. The changing seasons add to the demand, and children end up with a full set of clothes, accessories and equipment for different times of the year. But Swiss parents don’t mind buying or renting second-hand items for their children. Parents’ clubs hold seasonal bring-and-buy sales for children’s clothes and items. There are half-a-dozen of these within 15 minutes’ drive of where I live. Communes also run toy lending centres, the Ludothek or Ludothèque, which work just like a library allowing parents to regularly renew their toy stock at home.
4. Independent streak:
Parents are discouraged from driving children to school. Some parents of kindergarten children walk or cycle with them, but you see children from a very young age walking to and from school or getting public transport unaccompanied. There is not the same fear of abduction or paedophiles you find in many other countries. Forest days or playgroups are very popular, where children spend the whole time outdoors with no shelter in all weathers. Once a week in winter, my daughter would come home from kindergarten smelling of smoke because they lit a fire in the forest to keep warm! What’s referred as free-range parenting elsewhere has no name here. Whether in suburban or rural areas, it’s the norm.
5. Play comes first:
There is no urgency in the Swiss school system to teach children to read. In the two kindergarten years, when the child is aged four to six, learning is play-based and the concentration is on pre-literacy skills. The notion of boosting children’s IQ in their pre-school years is alien to Swiss parents. There is no market for flash cards, CDs or activity classes to accelerate babies’ or toddlers’ learning. By Christmas of first class (age six or seven), the Swiss child who began to learn his or her letters in August will be reading as well as their counterparts who started the ABC at age four.
6. Home remedies:
The first fashion statement of the Swiss baby is an amber bead necklace, which is believed to be good for teething pain. Swiss parents also give their children herbal teas for different ailments, like fennel tea for indigestion, sage tea for a sore throat, or black tea to clean eyes affected by conjunctivitis. The family doctor may recommend leaving a chopped onion in the bedroom at night for a child with a blocked nose. Swiss parents are also big users of homeopathic remedies and they love their osteopaths.
7. Start young:
Swiss young people either start working very early or pretty late. Two-thirds of Swiss pupils choose an apprenticeship – a mix of on-the-job and classroom-based training – when they come to the end of three years of compulsory secondary school. They may be only working part-time but they work alongside the adults in whatever company or institution offers them a place. It takes three or four years to complete an apprenticeship, after which there are lots of further education and training options to get more professional qualifications. Swiss parents have to help their children make the big decision of whether to aim for university or not when the children are still pretty young. Meanwhile, those who go to university attend four years of pre-university college when they finish secondary school before they begin a degree course. The young men do military service at nineteen. Depending on what they study graduates can be pretty ‘old’ when they qualify and join the workforce.
8. Spoilt for choice:
I would love to know what the playground-to-child ratio is in Switzerland. It is certainly more favourable than in my home country of Ireland, where the fewer facilities available are always mobbed by crowds of children. Every new housing development seems to include a playground and often a concrete table tennis table. Swiss parents of young children never have far to go for action. The well-designed playground is only the beginning of a lifetime of great facilities for Swiss children – playing fields, swimming pools, sports halls, libraries and music schools galore.
9. Therapy time:
Swiss kids are closely watched for any learning, speech or motor issues that might require therapy. By some estimates, half of all school-going children are receiving some sort of therapy to overcome learning difficulties. It is difficult to tell if this is because parents are pushing for intervention or if it has more to do with societal pressure. On top of the “official” therapies organised through school, many parents bring their children to alternative therapists.
There are many wild traditions in Switzerland that feel like they come from the Middle Ages, in some cases because they really do. Swiss parents are the ones who keep these traditions alive, passing them on to their children with enthusiasm. Some, like getting a home visit from St. Nicholas and his sidekick Schmutzli, is linked to the Christian calendar. Others, like parading in grotesque masks and burning effigies, are more pagan in nature. Every region has their own special celebrations and children are involved from a young age.