Annette Sorensen, a young actress, was visiting New York from Denmark with her 14-month old baby, Liv, and stopped to catch some lunch. She parked baby and stroller outside the restaurant’s plate-glass window amidst the café tables, and withdrew inside to dine. She managed to sit just three tables from the window, so was actually just six feet from the child. Not long afterwards, however, she was under arrest for child endangerment. The story was a nationwide scandal. Janie Bennett, 41, a teacher from Queens, told the press, "You can't leave your kids unattended in New York City. You aren't in Denmark…you're in New York." (for photo of Annette Sorensen with daughter, Liv, see BAX LINDHARDT, AP (May 22, 1997)
That was 1997, but it is still common throughout Scandinavia for a mother to leave her baby sleeping in a carriage outside a store while she does her shopping or drinks her coffee. You might see a line of babies parked on the sidewalk while mothers go about their business indoors without a care. And the babies are safe.
Here is a scene from outside a Copenhagen café. The woman who posted this picture explained the calm with which Danish mothers entrust their children to the community when they shop.
The practice is not limited to Scandanavia, but is also the way in France. Here the babies are unmistakably in the strollers. (Chez Thompson, someone's travel weblog)
I remember when a French woman got in trouble in Toronto for this same cultural faux pas, my mother told me that women used to it all the time in Scotland in the 1950s when she was young. Here is an old photo from England.
But lest you develop too much sympathy for the disoriented Danish mom, you should know that customers and waiters alike urged her to take her baby inside the restaurant, but she brushed them off. She had fair warning. Also, she was not on a five day sightseeing tour. She was in the city for a month, so she was more aclimated to New York ways that one would at first suspect. If that seems to be asking alot, it is not asking too much of her companion at the time to fill her in on what's done here and what's not. She was with her husband (actually, he was only "the baby's father"), Exavier Wardlaw, "a movie production assistant, who lives in New York," according to the news story. The fuller picture presents them as quite a pair. But that's their business.
Our business is to wonder how it is that these European societies have cultural norms that govern so widely and so effectively that mothers can leave their babies unattended in public in this way, whereas we cannot. My wife and I would not even put an "It's a girl" sign in front of our house when our eldest was born for fear that a local, childless, crazy woman might somehow sneak in and steal her. New parents. But we decided based on what we knew was happening. Is it the strength of their families that produces lawful people? What would account for that strength? Does their social democracy and pervasive statism account for people keeping their hands to themselves? Is there a low crime rate generally? Canada and Britain are more statist than America, but less so than Scandinavia. Does their social trust mirror that middling position?
Our society used to be a lot safer than it is now. In Georgetown, Ontario, I used to walk to school across town in the second grade with my fourth grade sister unattended. I won't let my kids, the eldest of whom is ten, walk two blocks on their own to a small park here in this nice Long Island neighborhood. Yes, it was Canada, but things have changed up there as well. What has changed? Can we restore what we have lost?