The Eastern European Way: Childhood Independence and Putting Family First
Donald Reindl, an Assistant Professor of English Translation in Slovenia, told me that one thing that Americans can learn from Slovenians is to give young children more independence. He said, “The independence of Slovenian children at the primary level and the confidence that they gain outside the family circle is commendable. Children almost all start preschool by age two (many by age one). During preschool they take class trips that involve up to three nights away from home without parents starting at age four. This pattern continues into primary school, with class trips and scouting trips (without parents) often lasting a week even for the youngest schoolchildren.”
Although American teenagers and young adults are known for their independence, Slovenians cultivate it that habit earlier. However, they balance it by having the kids live at home until they are at least 25 years old (or married). This is true throughout Eastern Europe, where economic circumstances make it hard for young adults to live independently. Still, they cultivate a skill for independence at an early age.
Meanwhile, when I asked him about health care for Slovenian children, Professor Reindl said, “Primary schools have resident dentists that regularly inspect the children’s teeth. This helps prevents more serious problems later on. Sick days off from work require a doctor’s note, which entails seeing the doctor and being routinely looked at for things like blood pressure, etc. This can catch problems before they become bigger.”
In 2004, when I was in Skopje, Macedonia’s capital, I was invited to an event at the house of the U.S. Ambassador to Macedonia, Larry Butler. Ambassador Butler’s previous roles in the U.S. Foreign Service included being the Director for European Affairs for the National Security Council, working on the Dayton Accords, and opening an office in Kosovo to report and mediate human rights complaints. He was also involved with Bulgaria. When he’s not being a referee in the Balkans, he’s an ice hockey referee. The event, which was held at his spacious house, was to promote Macedonian folk art. I was surprised by the lax security. They didn’t check my bag for the grenades and Uzi I was carrying. They didn’t ask for my passport or notice the bazooka on my back.
They served mouth-watering Macedonian appetizers. Macedonian love to skara (barbecue) meat, pork, and chicken during their cold winters . . . and the rest of the year too. I devoured enough food to equal my tax contribution. Although Ambassador Butler was understandably busy, it didn’t stop me from cornering him. (OK, so I had to knock down a few of his aides to get him, but it was worth it.) When I told him about the book I was writing, he looked at me with his crystal blue eyes and said, “You’re right, there’s a lot we can learn from Eastern Europeans.”
“Like what?” I asked him.
“First, there’s the importance of family. Macedonians, for example, always come back to their family. They don’t understand when Americans go to college thousands of miles away and then don’t return to their homes after they graduate.”
“Macedonians are no more than one generation away from the farm. They all have relatives that are in rural areas that they visit during the holidays, for instance. This keeps their connection with the land and food. Children grow up with an appreciation of agriculture, even if they live in a city. It’s something we don’t generally have in America.”
“Are there any downsides to these values?”
“Sure. For example, the labor markets here aren’t very liquid, because people are unwilling to move far from their family. This prolongs economic downturns. Also, I remember hearing about these two farmers who were unwilling to talk to each other because their great-grandfathers had an argument.”
“Yeah. Nevertheless, Macedonians and Eastern Europeans can teach us many lessons.”
Francis Tapon has traveled to 80 countries and spent the last three years traveling to 25 Eastern European countries. He is author of the new book,The Hidden Europe: What Eastern Europeans Can Teach Us. This article is an adapted excerpt from the book.