During my travels in Europe, I have found it interesting to see the differences in raising children and family life, as compared to the United States.
I have wanted to write about this subject for some time, so you can imagine how happy I was to receive an email from author Krista Brock proposing a guest post about her family’s experiences after moving from the US to Spain.
I enjoyed Krista’s story and I hope you do too!
A few years ago my husband and I were living in Dallas raising out two small children when my husband said suddenly in the car one summer afternoon, “I got an email about a job in Barcelona.”
“Barcelona?!” I said. “Do you want to live in Barcelona?”
“It’s a nice city,” he said and somewhat nonchalantly explained that it would be a good opportunity and that Barcelona is a nice place. I think I basically shrugged and said okay, wondering if anything would really come of it.
Fast forward a handful of months, and I was setting off with my three- and four-year-old to live in a city I’d never visited in a country where I didn’t fully speak the language.
I’ve truly enjoyed living here these past years. Barcelona has beautiful architecture, temperate weather, and offers both beaches and mountains.
While the city in its own right is nice, it’s also a great place for children. There’s a strong sense of community and family culture; there are playgrounds everywhere; and children are not siloed into a separate world from adults.
Now that I’ve been here two years, I’m reflecting on some of the biggest surprises and differences between momming in Texas and momming in Barcelona.
Speaking another language on a daily basis is an obvious and major change but one I’m now comfortable with.
We certainly knew before arriving that people in Spain speak Spanish, and people in Catalonia also speak Catalan. It is common for families to speak Catalan and Spanish, and many people know at least some English.
We sent our children to a warm and nurturing local Catalan school, so pleased at the benefit they would gain from learning new languages. It was not easy to go from speaking one language to trying to speak three, but I hoped the benefits would outweigh the struggle for them in the end.
The surprise panic that washed over me one day came from the thought that I wouldn’t be able to talk to my children’s friends. I suddenly began to wonder worriedly, would the other parents—knowing I didn’t speak Catalan and only spoke mediocre Spanish—let their children come to play at our house? Much to my relief, the first time we invited one of my children’s friends over, her mother said yes without hesitation and dropped her daughter off to play for two hours.
My Spanish has improved, and while it’s still far from perfect, language has not been an impediment in making friends or having friends over to the house.
The School Hours
Another big difference as a parent here is the school hours. My children—ages three and four when we arrived here—had been attending half-day preschool in Texas. Here starting at age three, the default school schedule is five days a week from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. with a two-hour lunch break. Children can stay at school to eat and play during those two hours, or they can go home from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m.
We live next to the school, so my kids come home for lunch most days, which means I have four hours in the morning to work, run errands, and study Spanish and then another two hours in the afternoon. I enjoy the time with my kids in the middle of the day, and I think, especially while they’re young, it gives them a nice break and a little quiet from all the activity at school before they finish out the day.
Moving from Dallas where everything is big and spread out to Barcelona, one of most densely populated cities in the world, meant moving to a significantly smaller home. Our apartment is about half the size of our house in Dallas. We got rid of piles of clothes, toys, excess kitchen items, and even our dining table before moving here.
While I do miss the kitchen counter space we had in Dallas, I’ve gotten used to the smaller kitchen and the smaller house overall. We don’t really need all the space or the stuff we had in Dallas.
Also, since no one here has a yard, children spend a lot of time in parks. On nice days, we might find one-fourth to one-half of each of my kids’ classes at the nearest park after school. On the one hand, we don’t have the convenience of letting them play outside for 20 minutes while I’m cooking dinner, but on the other hand we’re more motivated to go to the park where children can play with other classmates and neighbors and I can talk with other parents, helping us become more part of the community.
The denseness of the city also means driving is unnecessary and often impractical. In the last two years, the only time I’ve driven a car was on our trip back to the U.S. to visit family.
Everything we need here is in close walking distance. My husband laughs that the distance from our apartment to the closest grocery store is about the same distance we walked across the parking lot at the grocery store in Dallas after we had driven there!
Even the dentist our whole family visits is about four blocks straight up our street, and since there’s no buckling, unbuckling, and parking involved, it takes about five or six minutes to get from our front door to the front desk.
I don’t have to buckle kids into car seats and listen to them argue about what song we should listen to on our way to the store. However, if we’re going someplace new, I do sometimes get an incessant chorus of “How many more blocks?”
As long as I remember to plan my grocery shopping when it’s not raining, I love walking around the city to the post office, library, mall, or café. It’s relaxing and a great way to get in a little exercise without really trying.
When we want to go to the beach or a museum that’s a little outside of our comfortable walking zone, we use the safe and reliable public transportation. (I mean your wallet might not always be safe, but you are safe.)
Eating in or Eating Tapas
Spain is famous for its late dinners and there’s not much exaggeration in the representations I’ve heard. Restaurants don’t start serving dinner until 8 p.m., sometimes 8:30 p.m.; and if you do show up at 8 p.m., your almost sure to be the first one in an empty restaurant. We’ve pushed our dinner time back to 7 p.m. or 7:30 p.m. on most nights, but 8 p.m. is still a little late for us to start dinner.
Dinner out is meant to be leisurely and enjoyed, so you’re not going to be back home until around 10 p.m. We Americans don’t usually keep our three-year-olds out of the house that late, so eating dinner out for us was and still is a rarity. That means I cook nearly every night, where as in Dallas we would go to casual convenient restaurants or get takeout once or twice a week. The exception we’ve found is tapas. Many tapas bars serve those famous little plates pretty much any time, so we can go around the corner at 7 p.m. for a tapas dinner and still have our kids in bed around our American bedtime.
One of the major cultural differences in my experience living in the U.S. versus in Barcelona is the expectations placed on parents.
I’ve heard so many parents in the U.S. talk about how busy they are when their children get to elementary school, which always baffled me because the kids are actually out of the house more hours of the day than when they are in preschool. A stay-at-home mom once told me someone had told her, “You think you’re busy now; wait until your son reaches elementary school.”
In the U.S., there’s the long list of school supplies, the countless forms and permission slips, the call for field trip chaperones, and the requests for volunteers for all manner of events and class parties. Depending on the school, there are sometimes rather large (in my opinion) requests for monetary donations as well. Both working and stay-at-home parents seem busy and guilt-ridden when they can’t do it all.
At my children’s school here, there are no room parents or parent chaperones on field trips, and there are essentially no events for parents to attend (or feel guilty for being unable to attend) during the school day, except for one annual Christmas performance.
Each year, I fill out exactly one permission slip per child regarding field trips. It simply says they are allowed to go on field trips. I sign one other form allowing or disallowing the use of my child’s photo on the schools’ social media. There is a small parent council that meets with the school administrators to relay parental concerns and plan for improvements at the school, but there are no other calls for volunteers.
Family time is a big focus here, and I think most parents spend the weekdays focused on work, and when they’re not at work, they’re not working. The evenings and weekends are reserved for family.
Children Are Part of the World
One of the things I appreciate about raising children here in Barcelona these past two years is that they spend more time out in the world, and there is no separate world for children.
I feel that American children seem to be almost sequestered into their school buildings with the occasional field trip to a museum perhaps. What they eat and the way they eat is different from what and how adults eat, both at school and in restaurants.
At school, my children are regularly out walking around the neighborhood, once a week for swimming lessons and other times to nearby theatres or parks. The website for the school says, “we like to be an active part of the neighborhood and enjoy it on a day-to-day basis, which is why we carry out various activities beyond the downtown precinct.” It goes on to talk about the weekly swimming lessons, parks, and the nearby market the children visit from time to time.
My children also regularly walk and take public transportation with my husband and me. They have learned to be aware of streets and crosswalks and to be mindful of other people around them.
It’s normal to see children in cafes and restaurants—even past my kids’ regular bedtime. Children are served on the same breakable plates and glass glasses as their parents, and there are almost no children’s menus anywhere. Children use regular cutlery, including “real” knives both in restaurants and at school.
In the U.S. there is a very strong focus on children’s academics (which I appreciate) and competitive extracurriculars (which I personally have mixed feelings about), but in general, there is not as much focus on life skills.
Less Pressure on Everyone
I believe people in the U.S. view working hard and being busy as a virtue, while here it’s almost a peculiarity. My experience has been that there seems to be less pressure and less competition here than in the U.S.
When I talk to my children’s teachers about how they are doing in school, they tell me my children are doing fine academically but that they are perfectionists. My first-grader never has homework, and when I ask about how she is doing in reading and writing, the answer I get is nonchalant, like it’s not really a big deal right now.
On the other hand, I have my children read aloud to me each night before I read to them. I bring out workbooks and do educational activities with them. I tell myself maybe it’s partly because reading in Spanish and Catalan is more phonetic than English, so the school can approach reading and writing more slowly. In English, there are so many silent letters and rules and exceptions.
But maybe the difference is that, despite how much I love the slow pace and the family-oriented culture here, I’m also American, and my kids are too.
About the Author
Krista Brock has spent the past 11 years writing and editing professionally while dabbling in creative projects. Six and a half years ago she also took on the role of motherhood, and two years ago she moved with her family to beautiful Barcelona.
She combines all of her expertise and experience on her blog and released her first interactive children’s book this past fall, The Nighttime Adventures of Calvin and Ollie, an illustrate-it-yourself adventure.
Check out Krista’s fabulous blog at: https://kristabrockauthor.com/
Thank you, Krista, for sharing your experiences with us!