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?
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.