My first trip to Segovia was with my four year old daughter and it was immediately evident that children were adored in Spain. If she fell on the cobblestone street, any passerby would run to her aid with candy to make the hurt go away. Most Spaniards explain this loving devotion in the context of the low birthrate in Spain. There are simply not enough children to go around so all young are doted on in equal measure.
Spain’s fertility rate of 1.35 (in 2011) is one of the lowest in the world. Late marriages and expensive mortgages play a role as young people frequently live at home until their early thirties to save for their first apartment (70 percent of Spaniards own their home). Social advances made by women, with men lagging behind, are also a factor. Although women can earn what men earn, these women’s male partners do not participate in the childcare and housework. The socialist party, in power from 2004 to 2011, won two legislations to remedy inequality in the home and the low fertility rate. Since 2005 married couples sign a mutual agreement to share housework, child rearing, and care of elderly family members. Since 2007 mothers receive an incentive bonus of almost $3500 for every child born. In addition, maternity leave is as generous in Spain as in other European countries. The birthrate has risen slightly from 1.1 in 1998.
Despite grim stastistics, here in Segovia there are children everywhere you look. We arrived for the Titirimundi Festival, an annual puppet festival for young and old. It was Sunday and in the plazas and paseos there were armadas of strollers. Children not in strollers were as well dressed but otherwise savages of the first order. Mothers do not scold, they coo.
Children have freedoms in Spain unknown in the urban centers of the U.S. In Segovia they run through the medieval streets without restraint because there are no cars. On weekends they stay up to the wee hours with their parents in outdoor cafes and bars. They are given every conceivable snack during these long outings. Most of it is junk food. Young students walking home from school for the big meal during the week form rowdy packs. Buttoned and zipped up neatly in school uniforms, they use profanity, do not heed pedestrians, and eat junk food.
On my daughter’s first morning with the babysitter, a four hour stint, she received a quantity of candy sufficient for a month, plus donuts and juice boxes, three new bouncy balls, and a bag of little watermelon gum balls. She also met the babysitter’s grandmother who invited her to return for lunch another day. The grandmother would make spaghetti because my daughter had requested it.
Spanish hospitality is legendary and my daughter is the lucky recipient. At the dinner table in our Segovia homestay she says please and thank you in her rudimentary Spanish. Our hostess tells us she expects this of her five grandchildren, but that the kids’ parents do not. I tell her what another Segoviana told me: Spanish children are the most spoiled on earth. Then she carefully explains the difference between “mimar” and “consentir:” to nurture and fuss over vs. to indulge and to allow (bad behavior).
Even as I write this I can hear our homestay hostess invite my daughter to watch cartoons with her because she knows that I am writing. I am grateful.