Nearly 21 years have passed since the Velvet Revolution. With the great political changes that it brought came many small but significant changes in people’s personal lives. One area that has certainly been affected is parenting. Parents today have much more choices than under communism, which can be both an advantage and a disadvantage. In this month’s edition of Czech Life, we speak to Czech mothers about their experiences, what they feel has changed since their own childhood and what they want to do differently than their parents.
Halka Varhaníková often reads fairytales to her son Jáchym, who is four years old. She and the father of her two sons work from home. Jáchym also has a baby brother who is seven months old. Halka, who became a mother when she was 30, is part of a new generation of parents here in the Czech Republic who were born during communism but are now raising their children in a free society.
Halka says that her situation is very different to the one her parents were in when they first started a family, and that those differences are also reflected in her style of parenting.
“I think I try to be much more liberal when it comes to bringing my kids up, I think that my parents were much stricter. And in some cases, I felt and still feel that they were too strict. So I try to do it differently. But then again sometimes, when it gets too hard, I think that maybe they were right, and that being stricter could make life easier sometimes. But we’ve decided to do things this way, and I think it’s better for the kids, in general, they feel more relaxed, even though they sometimes say quite rough things to us, but I don’t mind.”
Under communism, Czechs often became parents at a very young age, which was sometimes connected to the fact that couples had a much better chance at getting their own flat when they were parents. Dr. Petra Vrtbovská is a child psychologist who works in Prague.
“Twenty years ago, most young people would get married in their twenties and have kids. As well, many of these kids would not really be wanted. Not unwanted, but not really wanted, ti would just happen.
“A young lady would get pregnant, they would get married because of the child, and then they would have one, two, maybe three kids at a very young age. Because during the communist regime, there was really nothing to decide.
“So young people had very little ways of showing that they were grown up and could make their own decisions. So that was one of the few decisions that young people could take, so most of them would go for a family very soon.”
Romana Hubková grew up under communism. She raised two sons, who are now both in their twenties. Now in her forties, she describes the experience of first becoming a parent.
“I am a product of socialism, I finished my studies and one month later, I was married and a year after, I was a mother. I became a mother when I was 24, so I think I was a very young mother. And the first four or five years I felt more like a child than a parent.”
Of course, a lot of things in the Czech Republic have changed in the last two decades. The situation of parents today differs in many ways, not just in terms of the age at which Czechs become parents. Dr. Vrtbovská again.
“For instance, what’s really available now is different schooling systems, so parents really have a choice in terms of what kind of school they would like to have for their kids. As well as leisure time activities and different courses for kids, which are widely available.
“One of the features which I can observe is that most of the parents are somehow too keen to get everything for their kids. So children go to piano lessons, language lessons, sport lessons, and they have a very full schedule. So even very young kids, at the age of 9 or 10, have a full diary of duties, and I think that’s a little bit too much.”
Michaela Svobodová Nehybová became a mother when she was 35 years old, just as she planned it. She says her experience is very different from that of her own parents.
“I can see a lot of differences, that’s for sure. Firstly, I think that parents now have much more information that they can deal with, they can compare much better what can be done and how it can be done.
“There are also a lot of tools that can help you with kids when they are small. So from my point of view, it’s much easier in some ways today. On the other hand, and my parents have said this, too, it’s much more dangerous now. And parents are afraid of letting their kids go to school on their own, for instance.”
Dr. Vrtbovská says that safety is definitely a top concern for parents today, and maybe one of the things that changed for the worse after the end of communism.
“Another thing that really changed and that has a big impact on the way people and children live now. Before 1989, the country was really pretty safe. Communist were able to keep crime under control.
“And since the liberty came, there is much more openness to different situations which are not safe for kids. And that resulted in a very different way of living for families today. When I was a kid, we spent most of our time outside, on our own.”
Mother of a four-year-old Halka Varhaníková says she tries to be as liberal as she can be with her children. But even she says she probably wouldn’t let them roam around outside as freely as she was able to when she was a kid.
“Well, I’d love to let them do that, because I loved it a lot myself, when I was a child. We played on the street and outside and in the courtyard between the houses. But now, I think it’s impossible, not just because of the cars, but also because nobody does it. So if you do it, you feel like an outcast.
“When my brother was a kid, he actually went to kindergarten on his own. And when I was little, I went to school when I was six years old on my own. Today, ten-year-old children still go to school with their parents, because they are afraid. I really don’t know what they are afraid of. It’s probably the cars, from what I understand, but I think it’s also the feeling that nobody does it, so you shouldn’t do it either.”
One thing that has not changed, says Dr. Petra Vrtbovská, is a strong emphasis on discipline in parenting, maybe connected to parents being very concerned with what other people may think of them if they see their children misbehave in public.
“Czech parents also have always been, and I think that still continues, very careful in terms of how their children behave outside. Because they think it’s sort of a window to the inside, and that if their kids don’t behave, everybody will think that they aren’t good parents. And I think that that has not really changed. I think Czech parents are ambitious in showing that their children are perfect.”
Two years ago Dr. Vrtbovská worked as an advisor to the then minister of human rights, Džamila Stehlíková, who wanted to raise awareness of the issue of physical violence being used to discipline children in the Czech Republic.
“She took me to a lot of public discussions, and I was really shocked, because in most cases, parents from the audience would stand up and say: No, the children in Western are very misbehaved, and it’s because you are too lose with them. Physical punishment is great, I was physically punished and look at me, I am a great person. So it hasn’t changed.”
Michaela Svobodová Nehybová agrees.
“I think that’s true, because in the Western part of the world, it’s much more focused on the children, pedocentric I would call it. We as Czech parents still don’t know very well how to bring our children up to think more on their own, because we are used to being given some rules and guidelines how to do things.
“And I think our generation still tends to do this. So on one hand, I think it’s good to give kids some rules and guidelines on how to behave and lead by examples, but on the other hand, I think we should leave them to find their own way how to do things.”
Halka Varhaniková thinks that this attitude is slowly changing.
“I think that’s changing now. It’s definitely changing now. I think that the older generation here expects parents to be stricter to their kids. So my parents for example think that I am not bringing my children up right because I am not strict enough.
“I have a friend who lives in India, she has two children. And it’s the complete opposite there, they don’t tell them of at all, they don’t forbid them anything. And she found it very difficult to come back here for a month every summer; because she lets the kids do what they want. But people stare at her, and they tell her off for the way that her children behave, the older generation. And they just behave as kids; they just run around and are a bit noisier than the average person is, but nothing too bad.”
And what is the single biggest lesson a parent can learn? I put the question to Romana, whose two sons are grown up now.
“Love the children. I think that’s really the most important thing.”