Ten Surprising Things About Parenting In The Netherlands

Parenting In The Netherlands

Joanna Goddard at A Cup of Jo has a fabulous series called: “Motherhood Around The World“, where she features parenting methods in different coutries all over the world. I thought it would be a good idea to write a similar post about parenting in the Netherlands.

I have been living in the Netherlands for more than 4 years. During this time, I found many things that surprised or shocked me about raising children in the Netherlands. Some of these them I have actually learned to enjoy. Others, I still can’t get used to. But as European parenting begins to gain some international attention, I would like to tell you a little about raising children in the Netherlands, a country that supposedly raises the world’s happiest children. If you asked me, “how do the Dutch raise their children?” here’s what I want you to know.

1)      Pregnancy

Maybe the one most surprising things about being pregnant or having a child in the Netherlands is the maternity system. In more naturally minded communities, the Dutch healthcare system is often shown to be a great example to follow. Midwives are a pregnant woman’s basic care providers. They work in practices of 1 – 6 midwives. Mom-to-be visits such a practice when she finds out she is pregnant. The midwives do several tests: urine and blood tests as well as measuring blood pressure and measuring the baby’s growth- only using their hands, but they also perform ultrasounds 2-4 times during a pregnancy. Dutch OBGYN’s only work in hospitals and usually care for women with high risk pregnancies. The midwives decide whether the woman can stay in their care or has to be transferred to the doctor. One of the midwives attends the birth.

1)      Birth and beyond

Homebirths are very popular in the Netherlands, with around 20-30% of Dutch women actually desiring to give birth at home. For a hospital birth, a room is rented for a few hours, and the woman goes back home the next day (often the same day). However, there is a special lady, called a kraamzorgster, who comes to your house for a few hours for 8 days. She checks on you and the baby, teaches you to bathe the little one, change diapers, helps with breastfeeding or formula feeding. But on top of that she also cleans the house, prepares light meals, can play with other children if needed, tells moms to rest and fights off uninvited visitors who want to see the baby. I think kraamzorgsters are angels in disguise. I may have my doubts about the maternity system here, but kraamzorgsters are real sanity-savers. I gave birth here twice, and the experience has been absolutely amazing, especially the third time around.

2)      Work and Daycares

Dutch daycares, at least the ones we visited, were of good quality. There are two types of daycare: the so called kinderopvang, which is a regular daycare and is mostly used by working moms and the so called peuterspeelzaal which is more intensive and focuses on social interaction and language learning, but only lasts for 3 hours. This one is used by parents who stay at home with their children, but want them to socialize a little bit. Dutch mothers get around 16 weeks of paid maternity leave. Pregnant women can stop working 4-6 weeks before their due date. Fathers also get some time off work to be with their children. While it is mostly the moms who stay at home with their children, or work part-time, father also often contribute to raising children: they can also stay at home, or work part time. I have seen many whole families at playground on a working day- the parents probably work 4 days a week and have one day for their families. Even more surprisingly, I have once found myself at the playground surrounded by young dads! Even with recent cuts in child allowance, causing many women to stay at home, the quality of daycares remains satisfying.

3)      School

Dutch children start school very early, at the age of 4 (in comparison with countries like Poland or Germany where the age is 6-7). However, the first two years are spent learning in a playful way. Children are not obliged to go to school until they’re 5 years old. Dutch schools are supposedly not very strict, however good schools have year-long waiting lists and are extremely hard to get in, even for children this young. The Dutch educational system offers schools with many different philosophies: Montessori schools are quite popular, and there is a wide choice of international schools. Only in the area I live in, close to The Hague, there is The American School, The International School, The British School, The French School, The German School, and The European School. These schools, however, are very expensive and not everybody can afford them. I wrote a post about our decision here. Homeschooling is legal in the Netherlands, but practically non-existent. The idea is that you are allowed to homeschool only if the choice of schools doesn’t reflect your philosophy or religion- and with the wide choice of different schools, it is practically impossible to homeschool.

4)      Food

One thing many expats complain about when they come to the Netherlands (besides the weather) is Dutch food. It is usually cooked and mashed (stamppot, mashed potatoes with green veggies such as spinach, all mashed together), fried (bitterballen, fried meatballs), or sweet (appeltart- apple pie, poffertjes- baby pancakes, stroopwafels-syrup waffles). Many expats also complain about the quality of food served in daycares: the children eat a lot of highly processed cheese and meat on fluffy white bread. I was so disappointed in Dutch bread that I started making my own! Moreover, Dutch children eat something called “hagelslag” on their bread, which is similar to chocolate sprinkles. Another highly popular topping is pindakaas (peanut butter). However, the children in some daycares are also served fruit and veggies for snacks. Luckily, the school my daughter attends offers warm lunches but not all schools do that.

5)      Celebrations

The Dutch have celebrations that are absolutely unique to their country. Take for example Sinterklaas. It is a figure that is one of the sources for Santa Claus. He arrives on a boat from Spain and children can great him in many Dutch cities. I have heard more Sinterklaas songs that I heard Dutch Christmas songs! While Santa Claus is usually celebrated on December 6th, Dutch children expect their gifts before that because Sinterklaas leaves on the 5th of December. Sinterklaas is controversial because he has Moorish servant called “Zwarte Piet”, Black Pieter. He hands in sweets to the children. However, because he’s black, accusations of racism have been raised. The Dutch will defend this tradition and explain that Zwarte Piet is black from the soot in the chimneys, but he also has Moorish facial features. When children celebrate their birthdays at daycare, the custom is to bring little presents for other children: sweets, crayons, raisins, little colouring books or little toys.

6)      Healthcare

Healthy children go to special centres called “Consultatiebureaus” where parents can get them weighted, measured and vaccinated, all for free. Sick children go to see a GP, not a paediatrician- unless there is a bigger problem. The Consultatiebureaus are good if you want to know your baby’s weight and get them vaccinated, however they can sometimes take a long time before taking action, for example, referring your child to a specialist. Their advice is also quite, to put it mildly, surprising. Another thing that may shock you it how hard it is to get the flu shot here. The Dutch only give flu shots to whom they consider risk groups: elderly people, the chronically sick, diabetics (these people get an invitation to receive their flu shot), but not children, or pregnant women. Vaccinations against the chicken pox are not common here at all and many expats struggle with getting their children this shot. I have had my own troubles with this system, but most of the times, it works quite well.

7)      Space

The Netherlands are a very small country and its size makes it very easy to go everywhere by train. Houses are old and small and come with lots of very steep stairs. Streets are narrow. People live close to one another and can look through the windows into the houses. However, the Netherlands are full of great parks, amusements parks, zoos, petting zoos and other places to visit and you don’t need to drive far away to see a lot. We have been to a zoo with monkeys, a zoo with birds, and an open air museum, and there is so much more to see and explore! I especially love the closeness of the sea and so do the children. However, manoeuvring these narrow streets with a stroller (or in my case, a double stroller) can be something of a challenge. The canals, of course (called grachten in Dutch) are a typical aspect of the Dutch landscape, but they don’t help in getting to places quickly and I usually worry about the children falling into the canals.

8)      Happy parents, happy children?

Over and over again, I read that Dutch children are the happiest in the world. One explanation is that family is an important aspect of life in the Netherlands. Shops close early, many parents (men and women alike) work part-time to spend some days with their children. Dutch children do have temper tantrums, but rarely have I seen a parent yell at their children. Instead, the parents explain, they talk, they softly tell their children that it is time to go. Dutch children have a good relationship with their parents, and their opinions are taken seriously. Schools are not too strict. At school, they are encouraged to do everything themselves, and be generally independent. To me, Dutch children seem friendly but assertive.

On the other hand, the parents have a lot of choices in their personal lives: they can work full time, or part-time. One parent may not work at all. They can send their children to a daycare for one day or five days, or just in the mornings. The Dutch system offers Dutch moms-to-be alternative choices of giving birth: at home, at the hospital or in a birth centre- natural birth is encouraged, but it fits with the Dutch mentality. Maybe all of this is the reason why I often see families with three or more children. And maybe this is the reason why I so often see smiles on people’s faces when they see me with my children.

9)      Making friends

I was very surprised when I realized that all of my friends were expats. I have tried hard to meet Dutch moms through my children’s daycare, but they were already settled, had a job and their circle of friends. I didn’t speak the language at that time. However, I was so pleased to have found friends from all over the world and my children made multicultural, multilingual friends as well. However, through my children I have made friends with some Dutch moms as well. I love that my kids speak Dutch and feel at home here. On the other hand, they will have friends like themselves: expats, TCK’s, multilinguals- and I love that, too!

10) Bicycles

The Dutch cycle everywhere. Even businessmen in suits cycle to work. Dutch children learn to cycle early, mostly with a loopfiets (balance bike), and then with a normal bike. From a very early age, parents put their children on bikes, and you can buy special adapters to attach a Maxi Cosi carseat to the bike. There are even special bikes (called a bakfiets), which is especially handy when you have more than one child. And there are countless solutions to put children on their parents’ bikes: seats (both front and rear), or additional wheels that you can attach to the parents’ bike. The Dutch are extremely creative when it comes to cycling, but it makes me concerned about safety – they don’t wear helmets, for example.

I am grateful that I can raise my children in such a child-friendly country and I enjoy my life here. My children also seem happy and their level of Dutch is mind-blowing.  I think the Netherlands are truly a great country to live and raise children in.

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