My American kids got a new perspective on modesty when we moved to the Netherlands. They adapted to open-air urinals and unisex locker rooms.

Cyclist crossing a canal bridge, child and woman
  • Open-air urinals and unisex changing rooms were shocking when we arrived in Europe.
  • The Dutch favor practicality and have a different sense of modesty than Americans.
  • My kids didn’t flinch, but it took some time for me to get used to a more open, practical society.

When we stepped off the train on our first day in the Netherlands, my family saw a lot of unfamiliar sights, but the one that really jumped out was an open-air urinal. It was a grey plastic contraption divided into four stalls, and you might walk by without knowing what it was unless someone happened to be using it.

You see these all over the Netherlands, especially in areas with lots of bars or at big street parties. They’re meant to keep the streets cleaner and prevent drowning accidents by people tempted to pee into the canals.

For my sons, ages 4 and 7 at the time, this open-air pissoir was not only fascinating but our first introduction to how much the Dutch favor practicality. And how our ingrained sense of modesty was about to be completely rocked.

We are a typical American family

We’re not prudes, I swear. I think we’re typical Americans, and I’d never given much thought to modesty before moving abroad. But living in Holland showed me just how different Dutch standards are.

At my boys’ elementary school, we noticed another big difference when the children changed into their gym clothes right in the classroom with everyone. The teachers didn’t waste time by going to private rooms, dividing by gender to change, and then heading to the gym, it was more like “pop on some shorts and a tee-shirt and let’s go.”

Their classmates and teachers didn’t make a big deal about it, so my boys never thought to either. It’s just what they did.

The relaxed modesty standards weren’t just in school. The locker rooms and even the showers at my kids’ Dutch swimming lessons were combined, boys and girls. For parents who had both, that was very convenient.

At our YMCA in the States, they had all-male, all-female, and family dressing rooms with private cubicles; but for this small swim school in the Netherlands, three types of locker rooms weren’t feasible.

If the locker situation wasn’t already an eye-opener, we walked into the pool area to find kids swimming laps in jeans and raincoats. It turns out that for higher-level swimming classes, you practice and even get tested fully clothed to ensure you’d be OK if you fell into a canal. For the same reason, goggles weren’t allowed. Talk about practical.

My kids adapted quickly to the new lifestyle

My boys went along with these changes and adapted quickly to what their classmates did. They didn’t bat an eyelash when their female swim-class buddies didn’t wear tops. They didn’t argue when their swim instructor made everyone exit the pool halfway through class and lined them up to use the co-ed toilets. Just like my sons didn’t question guys using open-air urinals, they thought it was kind of cool.

While my kids took everything in stride, my over 30 years of being an American took a little more time to get over.

But I respect the Dutch and their practicality, even when it comes at the cost of modesty. While I don’t think I’ll ever be comfortable walking by a guy peeing on the street, I can understand the need for it. Just like I had to get over the strangeness of children changing for gym class or swimming lessons in a common space.

Eventually, I came to love and appreciate the Dutch perspective. It forced me to reexamine my own cultural hang-ups and a bit of prudishness I never knew was there.