“We are a family-friendly restaurant!” proclaimed the last place I dived into with my kids to avert a tantrum. The phrase should have alerted me, immediately, to the aesthetic and culinary danger we were walking into.
Because in Britain, as everyone knows, “family friendly” really means “‘strictly segregated”. It says: “We have provided this special lurid menu/play area for your child so that you can eat/relax in proximity but, really, in entirely separate worlds.” This is, of course, despite the fact that “family” is a fairly broad term – are the children involved aged two? Twelve? Who cares!
It may have been a Japanese restaurant. Or Turkish. Doesn’t matter. Children’s menus in Britain are all the same: fish and chips, pasta and red sauce, or chicken nuggets with – if you’re lucky – the possibility of peas.
Fish fingers: not quite the last word in ‘child friendly’ meals
In all respects (including nutrition) the children’s menu will be inferior. But hey, it’s in primary colours! It has a word search on the back! We are family friendly!
Unless, that is, your children start to behave in any way like… children. Then things could get awkward.
The same goes for public parks. There you’ll find lots of lovely play equipment, stuffed into one specific area, fenced in to ensure that the real people aren’t disturbed by unruly play.
Museums, too. These days there are tonnes of children’s activities, but take a child into an general exhibition and watch the other punters’ faces echo The Scream.
And, of course, travel. So many hotels label themselves “family friendly” – and charge you plenty for that title – but what they create is an atmosphere in which you rush to feed your kids and put them to bed, so you can finally enjoy adult time – or you pack them off to activities or a creche so you can be, again, without them. So much for being friendly to families.
The world’s most family-friendly countries
It’s no surprise, then, that in a new list of the world’s friendliest countries for families, the United Kingdom comes 29th. The rankings are based on a survey by InterNations, an online community of 2.6 million expats. A total of 14,000 expats took part in the survey and for a country to be featured, at least 50 survey participants were required. The responses are subjective, but instructive nonetheless.
If you are looking for a truly family-friendly atmosphere, head to Uganda, say the expats surveyed
While Israel was highly praised for the world-leading quality of its education and healthcare, the country rated as having the most welcoming attitude towards children was… Uganda. Every single respondent rated its warmth and inclusivity towards children highly. One British expat summed up their experience in Uganda in this way: “friendliness, warmth, fun camping trips and nice food.” So, just like dear old Blighty.
Despite being the land of castles – surely a child-pleasing feature – Britain scores low on the index of family-friendly countries, perhaps thanks to the segregation of adults and kids
In fairness, almost all the countries at the top end of the family friendly list have warm climates – outdoor life grants space – but the weather is rather out of our control. After Israel and Taiwan come Costa Rica, Thailand, Greece and then Australia.
Greece was the only European country to make it into InterNation’s top 10. France lags below Britain, suggesting perhaps that children are not happiest in places where they are encouraged to be seen and not heard, or eat but not throw food.
In fact, many European nations ranked among the least child friendly, according to the expats. While the OECD says Switzerland has the 4th best quality of life in the world, it languishes at the very bottom of this list.
Switzerland’s cities regularly come high on quality-of-life lists, but the country scores low among expats for true friendliness to children
Parents also reported a frosty reception in Austria, Germany, Italy, Russia, Belgium, and the Czech Republic – despite the availability of quality education and health care. Places can rank highly for child wellbeing, but still lag behind on child friendliness. Of course, these are subjective answers.
It’s easy to imagine that expat families choosing to live in Uganda might be more intrepid than, say, those who have settled in New York, for example. Nonetheless, the aspects of life that they praise is instructive.
So what can Britons learn from expats’ experience?
“Families are just more valued here,” says Olivia Wilson, who writes about raising her British kids in Australia on a blog – The Wilsons of Oz.
The new Glenelg Foreshore Playground in Adelaide has shady parts, a water play area that leads into the nearby beach, and a 4m-wide slide that can fit the whole
“Play spaces are like UK playgrounds on steroids – set up so families can stay all day. Sunshades, water fountains, scooting tracks, soccer nets, even public electric BBQs… That’s in every ordinary park. Children are just welcomed in all public spaces.”
A city’s true inclusivity towards children is built into its very foundations, agrees Adrian Voce OBE, President of the European Network for Child Friendly Cities.
“We’re championing those [cities] where the child’s eye view is included in the design of public spaces,” he explains, “cities that want to really support children to thrive as part of their life.”
That means cities where children are welcomed into restaurants, museums and galleries as equal citizens, and where play is brought out from the fringes of the park and into the very centre of the city.
Voce champions Copenhagen, “where the adventure playground was invented – their play areas aren’t annexed to parks, you’ll find them right on the high street, which has been pedestrianised.”
Making cities embrace their noisier, messier, smaller citizens is in everyone’s interest, he claims. Children are an indicator species for cities, he says: “If we can build a successful city for children, we will have a successful city for all people.”