The Dutch secret revealed: Why do they have the happiest kids?

happy-kidsPublished in 101 mothers

Being happy. Isn’t that the wish we all have for our children? I realized this, more than ever, when I emigrated in 2014 from Holland to Uruguay, with my husband and two young kids. While I was packing my bags, Dutch media channels cheered that ‘we’ have the happiest children of the world. This was based on a child well-being study of Unicef. For me, this announcement was a hit in my Dutch face. Would I steal the happiest childhood on earth from my children, pulling them from their quiet and safe ‘orange’ nest and plugging them into the South-American craziness? I decided I would do anything within my reach to give my sweetest ones the happy childhood they deserve. Part of my ‘Masterplan’ was observing and studying why Dutch children are so happy and trying to adopt some of those aspects in our new Latin lifestyle.

Public schools and public health care

When I just arrived in Uruguay, one of the first things I realized was that the Dutch education and health care system is very fair. In Uruguay, as in most countries in the world, there is an enormous gap between (free) public education and the very expensive private schools. In short, how successful children will be in their lives largely depends on the income of the parents. In Holland, all children have access to the same type of schools, as they are practically all public and (almost) for free. Some of my Latin America friends can hardly believe that even the three Dutch princesses are going to a public Dutch school and that our queen (Máxima) is fulfilling the same mother tasks as the other mothers, like reading books in class and doing louse checks at school. On the other hand, low income families receive compensation from the government, which allows them in many cases to let their children participate in sport and school trips.
The same applies to the Dutch healthcare system. In Holland a health insurance is obligatory and public for everybody. That means everybody has access to a high quality of healthcare. Low-income families are subsidized by the government.

Lots of playtime

Another thing I learned abroad is that Dutch children have much more playtime during the week. Dutch children finish three or four times per week at three o’clock and once or twice at twelve o’clock. In primary school children don’t have homework, at least until the age of 10. Dutch children play at each others’ houses all the time. In Uruguay my daughter has a much tougher program. She goes to school from eight o’clock ’til four o’clock and if she does a sport she will stay until 17.30. Talking with my international friends I found out that Holland is the exception, not Uruguay. Children who go to private schools in, for example, the United States and France, have much longer days than the Dutchies as well. These school systems are adjusted to the full-time working schedule of the parents.

Part-time work

The Dutch social welfare state allows parents to work part-time.  About 75% of the working women are part-timers, the largest share of all OECD countries. In general, Dutch daddies are very committed to the family duties as well. Quite some fathers work only four days a week and have one ‘papa-dag’ (daddy-day), on which salary is partly paid. In total, about 28% of Dutch men work less than 36 hours. Part-time work is socially accepted and possible in many types of functions. In 2000, the Dutch government stimulated this, by legislating that men and women have the right to ask for a job to be part-time. In January 2016 this law has been renewed into the ‘flexible working act’.
Dutchies might look like a bunch of lazy bastards, but this nice work-family balance seems to be very good for our state of mind. According to the OECD better life index, the Netherlands ranks first in work-life balance. Dutch adults are always in the top 10 of worldwide happiness investigations. And happy parents means happy children.

Autonomous and independent

“How can you be so relaxed?” is a question I’ve regularly heard since I’ve lived in Uruguay. We, Dutchies, are used to our little ones climbing chairs, getting wet in the rain, hanging upside-down on playground equipment. Dutch parents are emotionally regulated and don’t yell much at their children. They stimulate independence and let their kiddies discover the world by trial and error. Sarah Harkness, professor of Human Development, studied how cultures around the world think about parenting. One of the outcomes was that Dutch people are very focused on independence. I laughed out loud when I read a fragment of the book “The Undutchables”, a humorous observation of the Netherlands. About raising kids it says:

The golden rule is: Let them be free … free to explore and experience whatever they please … free to be “creative”(destructive), with little or no concern for anyone else, as long as they are not in serious danger. They must learn to be independent and rebellious AS YOUNG AS POSSIBLE.

For many internationals the Dutch way of raising is hard to understand, but I am convinced that raising kids to become autonomous individuals stimulates creativity and independence and eventually happiness.

Not too much pressure 

Another outcome of the intercultural study of Sarah Harkness is that Dutch parents believe strongly in not pushing their children too hard. Instead, the three R’s: rust (rest), regelmaat (regularity), and reinheid (cleanliness) are the top priorities for Dutch parents. American parents, for example, often try to push their children to maximize potential. They are partly driven by fear of the child failing in an increasingly competitive world. I also see this happen in Uruguay. While I am worried that my children don’t get enough playtime and rest, other (wealthy) parents try to let their children do as many activities as possible. Frequently, they do about four different sports and go to bed after 21.00 o’clock.

Talk, talk, talk

Dutch parents have an open communication with their children and not rarely they let them be part of the decision making process. Our ‘polder-model’ culture (consensus decision-making, in easier words: talk, talk and talk until everybody agrees) is also applied to raising and educating children. A positive result seems to be that Dutch children generally talk very easily about many topics with their parents. They feel that their opinion count and learn to speak out. A child well-being study of the OECD in 2014 measured child well being in six dimensions among the OECD countries. Holland had the best average score. This research also showed that Dutch children have few obstacles to talk to their parents. According to the Dutch pedagogue Marijke Bisschop, the good Dutch score of the OECD research is thanks to the ‘talking-culture’ we have in the Netherlands.

Let’s ride a bicycle 

My Latin friends have a ‘shorter line’ with their children, being more authoritarian, as well as protective. On the one hand this is cultural. Latins have a stronger group-focused culture with strong and clear norms and values. On the other hand, Dutch children grow up in much safer conditions, which allows them to move, literally, more independently. On their bicycles they can drive safely to their schools and sport clubs and they use public transport independently from a young age. The bicycle is the most common way of transport for Dutch children. It doesn’t matter if it is raining or freezing, they still use the bike. ‘You are not made of sugar’ is an expression parents frequently use when it is raining.

Let’s talk about sex 

Compared to many other countries, Dutch children have a lot of space to explore their sexuality and – when they are older – their religion. For lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgenders (LGBT’s) Holland is one of the best countries in the world to live.
In general, Dutch people have an open dialogue about sex, also with their children. For me, it was completely normal that my teenage boyfriend could sleepover. My mother sent me to the doctor in order to get the appropriate contraceptives. Most Dutch teens are well informed, which is one of the reasons the number of teenage births and abortions is among the lowest in the world. In for example the United States, the percentage of teenage births is much higher. In the book “Not Under My Roof”, Amy Shalet looks at the culture of sex in the United States and the Netherlands. For most American parents, in contrast to Dutch parents, teenage sex is something to be feared and forbidden and I also see this in Latin America. Most would not consider allowing their teenage children to have sex at home.

What can we learn?

Of course I can’t draw bicycle paths on the Uruguayan roads, neither can I change the school hours of my children and improve the security issues. What I can do is accompany them, talk with them about things that matter and hear my children’s voices. I can try to let them be children as much as possible by not pushing them too hard and by stimulating playing and creativity instead of (too many) duties and screens. I can stimulate sports, without over stimulating them with activities. I can do my best to give them a clear routine, without losing the joy of the great Latin traditions. Finally, I will try to help them discovering their life paths, without controlling the direction.

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