David Heinemeier Hansson

April 27, 2022

Where are all the kids in America

There's a lot to notice about Copenhagen when you arrive fresh off the plane from America. Look at all those bikes! What a clean city! See all those pedestrians dutifully waiting at the crossover for the light to turn green without a car in sight!  All these observations stick out, but none trigger the culture shock like seeing kids everywhere. Little kids, big kids, kids on bikes, kids on the metro, kids walking with their parents, kids walking alone. Kids, kids, kids!

Kids are visible in the city landscape of Copenhagen like no major American city I've ever lived or visited. Not because there are actually more children in Denmark than the US. On average, Americans have slightly more children than Danes. But you'd swear that wasn't so by comparing the metropolitan areas.

The importance of this difference is of course not just that the cityscape feels more alive, more welcoming, and more human in Copenhagen (although it also does that). It's the fact that this prevalence of kids everywhere means they have real autonomy and independence. Freedoms that have been rapidly disappearing for many American kids.

Jonathan Haidt links this loss of autonomy and independence as a contributing factor to the social ills and growing authoritarianism in the US. And it's not hard to see that hypothesis supported when you've lived with kids on both sides of the Atlantic.

In the US, virtually all interactions outside of school for our elementary school kids were not just scheduled, but supervised and chaperone by adults. Play dates usually involved parents from all participating kids.

And I can't imagine many parents in New York City who would contemplate letting their eight year-old take the subway by themselves to and from school. Yet that's exactly what we've been able to let our oldest do on the Copenhagen metro. It's also not at all uncommon to see second graders biking in heavy traffic (protected by bike lanes) to school.

We've let our oldest run errands around our inner-city neighborhood since he was eight as well. Go to the kiosk around the corner for a treat. Pick up some groceries from the market. Go with his friend to the park alone after school. Oh, and of course spend copious amounts of unscheduled time with friends without that requiring an organized play date, parents hanging out, or any of the other social and protective machinery we were accustomed to in the US.

Now all this feels a little silly to write. Because that's exactly how I grew up in the 80s in Copenhagen as well. It really hasn't changed much. I explored the city by bus or bike or rollerblades on my own from second or third grade as well. Walked to and from school alone early too. Never involved my parents in who I was seeing after school or where we were going.

And I get the impression that this was indeed also largely how things were in America in the 80s. My wife had similar freedoms, similar autonomy and independence, in small town USA back then.

But that's not the America that I've witnessed while living there. Not for our kids, not for the kids of anyone we know. And that just seems tragic. There's such a glow of accomplishment on the face of our boys when they push another boundary of independence.

I thought about all of this for two reasons. First because our six-year old was keen for him and his three years older brother to take the metro alone to school together this morning. So they did. No big deal. And second because that made me recall recently reading about the Old Enough! reality show from Japan that shows much younger children still navigating the world on their own.

The Japanese show was treated mostly as this exotic dispatch from another world. A curiosity utterly disconnected from the reality of Americans. Not that it's hard to see why. You'd immediately be pursued by social services or the police in the US if you let a three-year old run around the city by themselves. 

But because it was so alien, I think most Americans watching aren't likely to use the example to truly contemplate how they might change their own parenting style or patterns. The kids from Japan might as well have been from Mars. That's a missed opportunity.

Yet while Japanese and American societies are indeed very different in almost all the ways, that isn't so with the contrast between Denmark and America. The Danish example should be easier for Americans to relate to. To remember that it's not a force of nature that's continually curtailing the autonomy and independence of American kids. That societies elsewhere around the world, ones that are quite similar in many ways and values, have managed to hold on to that 80s vibe and risk assessment for their kids.

If that echoes, perhaps a good way to start is by asking yourself every morning as a parent: What gift of independence might I be able to bestow my kid today? I guarantee that the value of receiving such gifts is universal.

About David Heinemeier Hansson

Made Basecamp and HEY for the underdogs as co-owner and CTO of 37signals. Created Ruby on Rails. Wrote REWORK, It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work, and REMOTE. Won at Le Mans as a racing driver. Fought the big tech monopolies as an antitrust advocate. Invested in Danish startups.