Why European Children Are So Much Quieter Than Yours

The playgrounds weren’t just beautiful. They were quiet. That was what struck me when I first moved to Vienna, Austria. Children there played and laughed, but rarely yelled across the park. Naturally, we Americans stood out. It wasn’t just my young daughter yelling, “Hey Mom, look at me!” from atop the climbing gym. I was part of the problem: “Time to go home!” I’d thoughtlessly yell from my bench, and then feel other parents’ eyes dart toward me in disapproval.

European parents’ discipline about not shouting at their kids was all the more impressive since they also almost never followed their children from apparatus to apparatus, as is the habit of most of us hovering American parents. These parents sat at the edges of the sprawling playground, reading books, drinking coffee, and letting their tots explore on their own. When they had to talk to their kids, they got up and walked close enough that they could use a normal voice.

I was baffled at first, and I’d snicker with my fellow expats about the harsh disciplinary measures and lack of spirit that must explain the bizarre quiet. Yet now, nearly eight years later, I’ve come to see a logic behind our different cultures, and understand why Americans’ reputation for being loud and boorish and the continental Europeans’ reputation for being cold and standoffish exist, but are ultimately incomplete.

A root cause, it seems to me, is the very different roles that public spaces play in our lives and communities. Americans are less likely to live in apartments and generally have bigger homes and yards than Europeans do. That means American children typically play in backyards and parents enjoy quiet and a bit of nature on their own properties. So when Americans seek out a playground, we are looking for company. Our children go to find other kids, and we parents are often also looking for conversation, rather than just an opportunity to sit peacefully under a tree. For city dwelling Europeans, the parks and playgrounds are their backyards. They go there to let their kids run around, but also to enjoy a natural setting themselves.

The differences in the use of public spaces explain behaviors outside of the playground too. Americans find it jarring when they are sitting at a European café or restaurant and someone takes the empty seat at their table. If someone is sharing our space, we assume we have to interact. Europeans presume that they and others will enjoy privacy even in close quarters. Just as American parents teach their children to look people in the eye and politely greet them, European children are taught how to interact quietly to avoid bothering people around them.

We learn these skills from a young age. My daughter’s 5th grade class (at a public school in Berlin, Germany) practices what they call their “one meter” voices: students are expected to sit with a partner and engage in quiet conversation. They are supposed to be able to hear each other, but not be heard more than one meter away. This allows other conversations to take place around them, creating an expectation of privacy and personal space in a crowded room.

Americans often hear about how much more sophisticated Europe is: women nurse their babies openly, and people change their clothes in public parks or by swimming pools because they don’t have our hang-ups about nudity. It may be that Europeans are just more comfortable with nudity, but this different relationship with public spaces also comes into play. In Europe, I may be in a public setting but the space around me is mine. I know that my neighbors at the playground, café, beach, or bus stop are going to do their best to ignore me entirely and give me whatever privacy I may want or need.

At first, I mistook these customs—the failure to make eye contact or smile while passing on the street, the utter lack of chit-chat that’s the background buzz of American waiting rooms and checkout lines—as evidence of a core coldness. Yet I’ve come to see it not as a lack of friendliness or compassion, but an outgrowth of the Europeans’ respect for privacy in the public sphere.

And the good news is that—while of course I’ve heard European friends joke about the brash, guffawing Americans ruining the atmosphere of a restaurant or public garden—most of them also appreciate the upsides of Americans’ dispositions: our open faces and quick smiles, as well as our instinctive friendliness and willingness to talk and laugh with strangers. Just as I’ve come to understand their lack of smiles, they understand that Americans’ loudness isn’t intended to bother them (even if it sometimes does).

My children are still noisier than their European neighbors, and I occasionally slip and holler to my kids across the playground. But I’m trying to embrace these rituals of European public spaces, and not only because it’s good manners to respect the customs of your host country when you are a guest. I find I also enjoy the privacy and the quiet. Even at the playground.

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  • InklingBooks

    I’m more than willing to live with noisy kids in parks if it means that as adults we’re also less willing to be bullied around by our government. It’s a small price to pay to avoid regimented lives.

    And that regimentation can be a pain. When I belonged to the sailing club at the University of Washington, a member from Germany told me just how different his country was. To sail even a small boat on a lake, he said, you needed two certifications. One gave you permission to sail that boat. The other bestowed permission to sail on that particular lake. No such pemissions are required here.

    • Micha_Elyi

      “And that (European style) regimentation can be a pain.”–InklingBooks

      Good point. It’s something to think on the next time someone blurts out “There ought to be a law…” Every one of those petty, annoying regulations began as somebody’s idea for one more ‘good’ law.

      Now you know why for true blue Americans the term “goo-goo” is an insult.

  • gb1234

    There’s something to this, but.. my side of the family was born and raised rurally while my wife’s family were all city dwellers – yet we are the quiet ones and they are the loud ones.

    • MC88

      I would be interested to know the ancestry of each of you. Are the rural people from stoic immigrants (eg Germany) while the urban are from emotive immigrants (eg Italy)?

      • gb1234

        Good point. The quiet side of the family is 62% Czech, 25% French Canadian, and 13% Scottish — Americans for just three or four generations. The loud side of the family has been in American so long, they don’t even know most of the ancestry except the last name is German.

  • conor_ob

    What is/will be the impact of masses of immigrant kids on European playgrounds? Just wondering if there was any noticeable difference with the introduction of new none-European cultures?

    • tsol

      Google “Rotherham girls”.

      • amrik

        Mostly Pakistani Muslims. Sikhs and hIndus are ok

  • CDS15

    This is not a European trait as much as it is a German and Northern European trait. Here in Spain, children are tolerated much more – many restaurants even have playgrounds where the children play while the adults dine, and those kids are anything but quiet. Similar tolerance in Italy and Portugal, slightly less so in France, but still an order of magnitude above Germanic people. Also, the Southern European piazas are quite often noisey with kids playing, but it doesn’t seem to interfere with conversations or cafe patrons. Agree that it is a cultural thing, but the cultures are quite different.

    • Carrie Lukas

      That’s a very good point — our family has lived in Austria, Germany, and in Brussels, so you are very much correct that our experience is a “Northern” European thing, more than a broad continental thing. I remember when we were living in Austria going a trip to Italy and being amazed at how different the culture and vibe with such a short distance — the grocery stores being rather chaotic and people talking loudly in the streets to each other. In a good way! But I should note that I don’t mean to imply that Northern Europeans don’t like children or have a kid friendly culture — they really do, as far as I can tell, and have wonderful restaurants with playgrounds attached and parks, etc. — but just the expectations for quiet and control are so much higher. Thanks for reading and for your comment…

  • It’s rather hard to imagine parents following children – either in the U.S., or in Europe – from “apparatus to apparatus”. What on earth does this refer to? What kind of “apparatuses” do they have in Europe?

    • Carrie Lukas

      I meant following kids around the playground from the swings to the monkey bars, etc. Parents really do do this frequently in the U.S., and not just when kids are toddlers and may need help… There is often a sense and expectation that parents are suppose to be standing by and watching their kids at all times. When we moved to Europe I was amazed at the relative freedom people gave their kids… and I’ve tried my best to embrace that mentality. Sorry if that was confusing!

      • Sluggh

        It wasn’t confusing. Thoughtful piece. Thanks.

      • Keith Hagarman

        So thankful to have grown up during the 70’s. As a family we would go to the YMCA, and while my parents and their friends played tennis, we would hit the playground and run wild. Couldn’t wait to meet friends and hit the swings. Scraped knees and elbows, some tears an occasional trip to the ER. All good

      • Mike55_Mahoney

        Not in the rural midwest.

      • B Brad

        In my city of over 50k people I was often in charge of our kid on weekends. Sadly it was a rare park visit where we found someone within 50% of my kid’s age. Often we’d say for a few hours and maybe find one similar age kid, who often disappeared in 10 minutes off to somewhere else. I think it’s a combination of large yards, many things competing for time, and a general lack of unstructured time for kids these days.

        So as you might imagining I was often called from structure to structure, because nobody else would play with her.

        Even now that she’s 11 it’s still tough, she ends up virtually playing with other kids her age on minecraft because finding a gaggle of 11 year olds (or anywhere close) at a park is pretty tough. Amusingly many of the games kid play on playground can be played in minecraft.

        Pretty scary how much TV (other) kids often watch, best time to meet kids outside is when the power goes off long enough to take the internet with it.

      • i couldn’t resist being playful about the strange word choice “apparatus”, to refer to monkey bars and other outdoor park equipment.. If English isn’t your native language, I apologize for teasing you for the awkward wording.

    • komrath

      Ah you know, the usual apparatuses like the breaking wheel, stretching machines and some other gizmos for torture 😉

  • rechill

    Go to Italy. Don’t confuse Germany with Europe.

  • PubliusII

    Telling anecdotes, and I believe your explanation (Europe’s lack of private space compared to America) is correct.

    But for your kids’ sake, don’t linger too long over there! Bring ’em home before they imprint on Yurpian social values.

  • MC88

    I think the author’s analysis is logical, but incomplete. We all seem to have some American-ness, but you can see similar differences regionally within America and trace it back to different cultures that are stoic or emotive. I think she is correct in the approach, but perhaps not entirely in the diagnosis for many of these differences wouldn’t hold if you switched out a rural German for an urban American. The American would still likely be boisterous and the German more reserved.

  • ubik

    Had a German exchange student who enjoyed the contact with strangers. People coming up and starting a conversation just because of his accent, many having served in West Germany.
    There are tradeoffs with anything. Understanding that other cultures behave differently without any malice is important.

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    Cultures should be judged by how successful they are. America went from a few agrarian colonies, to the world’s sole superpower in a couple of centuries. The Europeans would be wise to emulate American Culture rather than, Americans emulating European Culture as so many leftists desire.
    In 1980 European and American per capita incomes were the same after American help rebuilding from WWII, but 30 years later American incomes are 30% larger, demonstrating the superiority of American Culture.

    • rob brown

      I’m not that into “judging” cultures, but as a fellow American, I’ll judge you to have a serious need to get over himself.

    • BuckRogers

      Money isn’t culture though. The US has no culture other than commercialism. If you’re looking to churn workers up, yes the US is better. If you’re looking for good food, happiness and culture, Europe crushes the USA.

      • LucreMagnus

        No culture other than commercialism huh? I don’t mean to knock Europe, because I admire many European countries, but I will not sit by and allow that shallow, “I’ve just come from University” remark to go unchallenged.
        The US has an older government than any in Europe. Its Constitution predates any of them–or didn’t you know? Its based on individual freedom not “the government gives it to you.” You must have missed that, or you simply don’t appreciate it. Don’t like Trump? OK, but in Europe they almost have no chance to elect who they want. The Better people sort it out there–like they have with the EU. Great job.
        Don’t like having to earn money? Well, we don’t have royalty here. Or unsustainable pensions at age 52 (well, hopefully not many). I see lots of Europeans here to work–and good for them. Glad to have them. Not so much Americans seeking work in Europe. Here, everyone is supposed to work. That’s a good thing–unless you prefer sitting at cafes all day–and who pays for that?
        European affairs are almost all sorted out in advance by the Better people. And that’s not going over well right now. The Brits might leave and good for them. Brussels is a bossy drag.
        Culture? Los Angeles alone has a mix of more cultures than Europe has ever had. Los Angeles mixes whites, blacks, Canadians, Brits, Hispanics, Asians, seiks, muslims, …I lost track. You must have missed that too. I’ve eaten meals all over Europe: good food, but I wouldn’t trade.
        The European culture you’re so proud of: its going out of business if the demographic projections hold. No reason to believe they won’t. I’ll regret that as I have enjoyed my time in Europe. But Italy is literally shrinking, as is Spain and Germany. Enjoy that food for a bit.
        I mean no offense to our friends in Germany, France, or the UK. They’ll understand why I feel I must speak as I do to what may be a self-loathing American.

        • Phil the Donahue

          Lol. You must smoke weed dude.

    • Phil the Donahue

      You mean have slaves build the country? And profit off wars? So killing and owning people is what Europe should do?
      Btw, there isn’t an empty storefront anywhere in Paris, London or Florence but in Chicago, NYC and LA places close left and right & are empty. Food in small town Europe is incredibly good whereas food in small town USA I wouldn’t feed a dog.

  • ronbo

    Good insight. I’ve seen the same thing in Paris, another city where public space is prized in part because private space is so limited.

  • Nate Whilk

    “people change their clothes in public parks or by swimming pools because
    they don’t have our hang-ups about nudity. It may be that Europeans are
    just more comfortable with nudity,”

    That won’t last too much longer, thanks to “Middle-Eastern” immigrants.

  • One other notable distinction is that in France and Germany, diagnoses of attention deficit syndrome is virtually non-existent. I wonder if we could attribute some of these cultural differences to not being affected by pharmaceutical companies bent upon selling drugs.

  • zeroc8

    I am an Austrian who has spent more than two years in the States. After returning home, it took me quite some time to get used to our unfriendly ways in public again.

    Considering our small population size, there are definitely too many assholes living in this country.

    That said, things are changing – albeit slowly – and people are opening up more than they used to. So there’s hope 😉

    • BuckRogers

      I’m an American and lived and worked in France. I’d trade places with a Frenchman any day. I really prefer French or European society. Americans are assholes too but just in your face assholes, not quite, polite assholes.

      • LucreMagnus

        Have fun. Don’t rush to come back.

        • BuckRogers

          Haha typical French guy. If I didn’t have so many friends in France, I
          would assume you’re all pricks. It is true you may all be xenophobic pricks, no better than the Russians or Americans. And 99% of you haven’t traveled outside of your own borders yet judge all Americans like you know something about the world- but if you get to know one of us you’re actually not so bad.

          That said, I worked for many years in a French company and never learned French. Why? Because I decided fuck you, that’s why. Not my friends, but the rest of you. I speak Spanish instead because your language is dead.

          Good news is, Mr. Xenophobic French guy, my wife’s grandmother was from Spain and we can come back anytime we want to the EU.

        • BuckRogers

          I’m back, bitch! If you were talented enough to live and work wherever you wanted like I am, you’d know what I’m talking about.

  • Stéphane Piette

    You are comparing a kid from a village with a kid from the town and your conclusion is about two whole continent. Wow, that escalated quickly …

  • BuckRogers

    It’s because the US has been swamped for 100 years now with people of Southern European culture. Before the Irish, Italians and Mexicans came here we were much more reserved ourselves. Having been largely populated with Germans, English, Scots, Swedes etc prior.
    We’ve just been taken over and changed this place. It’s gone from a strict society where shame existed, to essentially a circus or a zoo. And I say that as a large admirer of those non-Northern European cultures. There’s good things to both but if you want law and order- you want Northern European based culture.

  • amrik

    I could summarise this article much better in one line: its because they’re spoilt brats that get everything they want.

  • Chowderbatter

    Here’s something else I’ve noticed about American kids… they are so immersed in television, video, movies that they often howl, grunt, and make deliberately obnoxious shrieks which they think are amusing.

    Every Pixar, Dreamworks, Nickelodeon, video game, whatever has this wacky, flatulent, mouthy sidekick who just runs their jabberhole at 11. It’s patterned after the Donkey character in the Shrek films or any character ever played by Robin Williams or Gilbert Gottfried.

    The children who emulate these obnoxious characters are absolutely convinced that they are hilarious and a treasure for all who are fortunate enough to be within earshot, which is pretty everyone. Couple this with the Kardashian everyone-is-a-diva narcissism and you have these kids running around who are person blowholes for awful pop culture.

    Most of their parents either think it’s adorable or they have become completely oblivious to the noise. If you listen to children who were not raised in this particular cauldron of awful, you can distinctly hear the difference between the peals of childish laughter, which is as musical and pleasant as any birdsong, and the grunts and shrieks of American kids.

    • Chowderbatter

      Full disclosure: I am an American person and I was definitely one of these obnoxious kids back in the day. I feel sorry for whomever had to endure my shenanigans.

      • Chowderbatter

        Oh, for f*ck’s sake.

        This sh*tty blog has an approval process for each post? Screw this. Gone.

        • We’re sorry your comment was put on hold, Chowderbatter. It should be visible now. Hopefully that won’t happen again.

    • Irene

      Europeans are like that too. Children in Europe are also glued to their smartphones, video games. They’re humans with human attachments and emotions. I don’t know what makes you think American kids are worse than any other child out there!

      • Phil the Donahue

        Americans click the tele 5 hours a day; whereas Europeans just one to two hours per day. Obviously Americans, who are also addicted to meds and drugs, have some issues that the Europeans do not.

  • Karthik Srinivasan

    When will they ever learn, the poor Europeans. It is a strongly dominant strategy to live like the Americans. They are honest, earnest and get to the point. No beating around the bush. What are we to do with all the personal privacy and the overt ‘shy’
    customaries. Simply an overhead in today’s global world!

  • Rich Rostrom

    It may have less to do with “Europe” than with “Northern Europe”. Famed ethologist Konrad Lorenz noted the variation in the “listening gesture” across Europe. (The “listening gesture” is the inclination of the head to signal paying attention.) A marked tilt also indicates friendship and sympathy. But that is relative to the tilt normal in each culture, and the normal tilt is greater in the south than the north.

    Lorenz, an Austrian, recalled meeting a young north German woman, and thinking he must have done something to offend her. He also suggested that the more pronounced normal tilt of Mediterranean people appears to signal agreement to northerners, which isn’t actually felt or intended. When the Mediterranean person doesn’t live up to the expectation, the northerner feels deceived. This may explain the stereotype of the unreliable Latin intriguer.

  • InklingBooks

    Given the low birthrates in most European countries, a culture that insists on children being quiet seems double sad—so few of them and those who are there are so quiet. It’s like they’re not there.

    Or perhaps like the quiet of a graveyard that’s about to be overrun by a horde of vandals. I shudder when I try to imagine Europe circa 2050.

    • jesaintlouis .

      true and sad

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  • Irene

    Please, stop selling stereotypes about how much more intelligent, civilized, great, worldly, thinner, smart Europeans are in comparison to Americans. I worked at a school in Europe and trust me…. Quiet? HAHAHAHAAHAHA. The biggest pain in the butt child I ever met was actually as European as European can get. I don’t know what makes you think European kids cannot be loud brats.

    • Phil the Donahue

      It’s actually true, they are more civilized, dress better, speak a few languages, have great bookstores and better food. Perhaps your student was reacting to you having a b**** vibe?

    • Dec

      Hey Irene, it is really important to understand that not every european country is the same. There are significant differences between countries, the author talks about her experience in Austria. As a general rule, an Italian kid will be unbearably loud, and a Finish kid may be alarmingly quiet. Europe is quite diverse in that respect. In general the description made by the author is more or less accurate for the average European. Of course it’s a generalisation, so you shouldnt try to apply it equally to every european country individually.
      If I may ask out if curiosity, in which country did you experience ‘loud brat’ kids?