The Dutch Raise the Happiest Kids in the World
I Am A Mom, Thoughts On Parenting

Raising Happy Kids, Dutch Style

Happy Kids

A while back, I read a fantastic blog post on Brain, Child, one of my favorite parenting sites. It was called, “Never wish happiness for your child.” The author, the mother of grown-up children who struggled to become adults, wanted to raise happy kids. A co-worker gave her advice: instead of wishing happiness, she should teach skills.

“What my co-worker recognized when she told me to teach skills to my children was that I had my self-worth wrapped up in my children’s happiness and success and she wanted to set me on a different path.” Fair enough, I say. Teaching skills is important. But why does it have to be one or the other? Why can’t we have both?

Happy Kids

Enter the Dutch. In a recent book, The Happiest Kids in the World: A Stress-Free Approach to Parenting_the Dutch Way, authors Rina Mae Acosta and Michele Hutchison argue that Dutch kids are not only pretty independent, but they’re also the happiest in the world. The book is based on a UNICEF study which showed that Dutch kids took the top five places in all categories: Well-being, Health and Safety, Education, Behaviours and Risks, Housing and Environment. According to the writers of “The Happiest Kids in the World”, it all comes down to the way Dutch parents raise their children.

Here are a few bullet points from the book:

  • Dutch kids get more sleep (and I can totally see how sleep makes people happy)
  • They have no pressure at school
  • They are encouraged to voice their opinions
  • They ride on bikes as soon as possible
  • They play outside without supervision
  • They have regular family meals
  • They enjoy the simple pleasures
  • And, they eat chocolate sprinkles on buttered bread (because it’s chocolate).

“Childhood over here consists of lots of freedom, plenty of play and little academic stress. As a consequence, Dutch kids are pleasant to be around (…),” the authors write. They are “self-aware and confident, and are able to foster meaningful ties with family members, build loyal friendships, find love and discover their place in the world. This is the kind of happiness children experience when their parents listen to them and respect their opinions.”

Moreover, Dutch parents don’t seem to be anxious about their children, and instead they see their kids as “individuals rather than extensions of themselves. They understand that achievement doesn’t necessarily lead to happiness, but that happiness can cultivate achievement.”

The parents (especially the mothers) work part-time and besides, the Dutch work the fewest hours in the developed world. And let’s not forget that fathers are involved, new mothers get amazing postpartum support known as kraamzorg, which means that a specially trained nurse comes to your house and not only checks on you and the baby but also does light household chores. A shame it’s only for a week.

Dutch women don’t feel the pressure to be perfect parents. “Doe gevoon normaal,” (just be normal), is already crazy enough for them. And let’s not forget the fathers. Like the bikes, tulips, and canals, they are everywhere: on the streets, at daycares and schools, picking up their kids. They’re also at home, where they spend one day a week with their families. This is known as papadag, or in English, daddy day.

I often hear how bratty and spoiled Dutch kids are, but this hasn’t been my experience at all. They’re direct and outspoken but not bratty. Since I’m terrified of teenagers, I pay close attention when I see them and watch their behaviour. Dutch teens don’t seem to rebel much. Maybe the reason is, like my mom once noticed, “But why would you rebel when you’re free to do everything?” And by everything, I mean, everything. Dutch parents are not afraid of talking about taboo topics, such as teenage sex. You would think that this liberal approach may lead to excess. Instead, the opposite is the case: The Netherlands has one of the lowest teenage pregnancy rates in the whole world. Dutch teens are less likely to smoke, drink or take drugs. And, they have sex later and report more pleasurable first-time experiences. And, you’ve probably guessed it, Dutch teens are pretty happy too.

Raising children to be both happy and independent doesn’t have to be a choice. In fact, independence leads to happiness. And, paradoxically, the search for happiness can make people miserable. When parents focus on happiness, they’ll feel obliged to always step in and remove all obstacles from their child’s path, which again makes them both even more miserable. A vicious circle if you will.

The bicycle is a symbol of the Netherlands. It’s played a big role in women’s emancipation and is equally important for developing independence in kids. Learning to cycle, in all kinds of weather, is an important life skill. But feeling the wind in your hair, and the pleasure of moving your body can make you happy, just like that, without you even noticing.

This is exactly how the Dutch approach parenting. They want their kids to be happy as well. But they know that it happens through teaching children independence, not snowploughing or helicoptering. In short, they don’t choose between wishing happiness for their kids and teaching important life skills. Just like the Dutch found the right balance between life and work, they also found the balance between happy and independent kids.    

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  • Reply Kristi R Campbell February 4, 2017 at 2:49 am

    I struggle a bit with the independence but am working on it. When my son was younger, there was no way (he has developmental delays) but these days, he’s experimenting more and more with it, and I find myself letting it happen more often. Heck, when I was a kid, we were told to be home for dinner after we finished lunch!

  • Reply Another Reason I Love My Dutch Daycare - The European Mama February 15, 2017 at 2:47 pm

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  • Reply sieneke June 6, 2017 at 10:54 am

    Hi Olga,

    I am really wondering if this finding (“happiest children”) is true or it is rather just country promotion (the Netherlands is in need of highly qualified expats/tax payers who often have a family). The Netherlands is one of the countries where children start school the earliest (at 5 years old compulsorily; at 4 years old usually) and have the shortest holidays (only 6 weeks during the summer and 11-13 weeks in total per year). Also, in the Netherlands, homeschooling is illegal, so there is no freedom of choice, just in case.

    Personally, I’m afraid that nowadays children have too little unstructured and free time, and this makes me quite sad. When do children have time to live their childhood freely, without an imposed, mandatory and often long schedule?

    I find that, for a 5-year old, a mandatory school day of 7 hours and a few weeks of holidays per year is rather overwhelming. Even in the case of learning through play (which takes place in preschool), I believe that controlled and imposed play and learning (for long hours) is very different from free play and learning and is differently perceived by the brain. I feel that there is not much freedom left for children, including and especially for the smaller ones.

    Sure, for parents who work full time in a conventional workplace, the fact that the children stay in school the whole day may be welcome. However, it’s the children that I’m thinking about. I remember perfectly that, as a child, what I most enjoyed was to play freely with my neighbors’ children and stay in the comfort of my own home or close to it. I didn’t like to go to kindergarten (although it was a friendly place), I didn’t like to be confined in one place for a certain number of hours per day, especially not at that very young age. (However, I liked books and liked to find things out by myself and with the help of family members.)

    In most countries, school starts at 6 years old (which is a more reasonable age for school). Also, holidays are longer. In Finland, for example, school starts at 7 years old. Children have 10-11 weeks of holiday in the summer and a total of 14-15 weeks of holiday per year. School days are shorter, too, totaling 5 hours per day (recess included), not 7 hours per day. Homeschooling is legal, too, so there is freedom of choice. The Finnish school system is one proof that study can be concentrated in fewer hours and that a child doesn’t need to spend lots of hours at school to be smarter. In fact, I believe that children do better professionally when they learn to be autodidacts and have free time to learn and work on something useful that they are passionate about.

    One thing I like about the Netherlands though is the flexibility of the parents’ work schedule and the possibility of part-time work. However, I think the government intrudes too much in the family (through education laws, taxation system, etc.), that it creates many normative cues on how to live one’s life, and that there is an unspoken pressure that everyone should go to work and put children in daycare. In fact, in the Dutch society, I feel that putting children in daycare and early school gets more societal approval than giving up one’s professional job to take care of one’s children. Hey, no longer a tax payer, not good… 😉 even though one might have enough savings to live on. (By the way, in the Netherlands, there is also an unfair tax on personal savings called Box 3.)

    There is no perfect country, unfortunately. However, I strive to think critically about everything and take everything with a grain of salt because things aren’t often what they look like.

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