I recently listened to the audio book version of this novel that investigates why Dutch kids were ranked the happiest in the world in Unicef’s 2013 report. Out of the 29 richest Industrialized nations included in the report, the United States ranked 26th. The report included analyses of many different factors including teen pregnancy, drug use, rates of depression, school success, and overall self-reported happiness levels, to name just a few.
In light of this report’s findings, Rina Mae Acosta and Michele Hutchinson, a British woman and an American both raising their children in The Netherlands, offer their insight as to why these findings are true, and the key ways in which child-rearing is different for Dutch parents.
The chapters cover a broad range of topics but a few stood out to me as major, defining cultural differences that would lead to an increase of childhood happiness:
1. Social Class
It appears that in The Netherlands, the disparity between classes is minimal. More importantly, the pragmatic nature of Dutch people means that wealth is not flaunted, as it is in America. Families purchase similar, reasonably sized homes, regardless of income. Cars are practical, never flashy. Clothing is pragmatic, as well. The Dutch are very active people; they ride bikes everywhere, children play outside for hours each day, even in inclement weather, and camping is a favorite national pastime. Consequently, clothing is practical and accommodates these tendencies. Toys and clothes are frequently handed down, not out of financial necessity, but out of practicality. Homes are modestly decorated in practical ways. These are the social norms.
With the growing disparity between classes in The United States, one can imagine the toll that this takes on children growing up in towns and cities where a wide range of social classes mingle in the same building. Children struggling to find meals, warm coats, or shoes that fit, are measuring themselves against kids in designer clothes. Or more often these days, the kid that always has the newest iPhone, or Mac book, or game console, who is the exception but becomes the example. It creates an acute awareness of loss, what is missing, what isn’t. Wealth and material objects become something to strive for, rather than family goals.
2. Encouraging Independence:
Apparently, Dutch parents recognize something that most American parents don’t seem to understand: safety hinders independence. In America we are bombarded with sensationalized stories of kidnappings, pedophiles, human trafficking, and fatal childhood injuries. This propagation of parental terror has led us to the “helicopter parent” phenomenon. Always hovering, worrying about the possible negative outcomes, constantly chiding, “be careful,” and altogether avoiding risky behavior. This has spilled over into home life as well in the prevention of young children using the stove or sharp knives, or allowing our teens the freedom to make their own decisions about relationships.
The problem with always keeping our kids “safe,” is that children gain an enormous amount of satisfaction, knowledge, and confidence from living life with a longer leash. If we prevent our children from failing, from getting hurt, they will never learn their limits. They will become insecure, unsure, and dependent. This may explain why America has one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy, teen drug use, childhood anxiety and depression, and increasing problems with young adults being sent off to college with barely the skills to make themselves a grilled cheese.
Dutch kids, on the other hand, are sent outside to play alone usually by the age of four. It is common for early elementary age children to walk down the road to the park by themselves, unsupervised. Tweens begin riding their bikes to secondary school by themselves, often many miles each way. The life of a Dutch teenager is much different from that of an American. Most Dutch teens have been having open discussions about sex and sexuality with their families since they were little. It is not a taboo topic, and co-ed sleepovers are a normal occurrence. Marijuana is legal in The Netherlands and most teens have tried it, but it is not a big deal. Again, it is not taboo, nor is alcohol. As a result, the “forbidden fruit” quality of sex, drugs, and alcohol is lost and most do not over-indulge. As a result, the Dutch enjoy some of the lowest rates of addiction, teen pregnancy, and alcoholism in the world.
3. Focus on Family:
Possibly the key to all of the Dutch success, including the two previous topics mentioned here, is the entire nation’s commitment to the family unit. It begins at birth (which almost always takes place in the home,) when a family is supported by its country to enjoy long, paid, maternity AND paternity leaves. It continues from the work place where employees are supported, nay expected, to put their families first. Staying late to work is almost unheard of, and employees receive a lot of vacation time. Many often have an option for a 4 day work week in order to spend more time with the family. This is all equally true for men and women. Men are seen as equal hands in the running of a household and family.
Dinner time is sacred for a Dutch family. Friends are not invited over, nobody skips, or misses dinner. The whole family eats together every evening, and a lot of talking takes place at the table. Plans are made, arguments are solved, questions are asked, discussions are had, and laughter is plentiful.
It makes sense. In a country where the family unit is held up as the most important order of things, it is easier to see how the rest could be possible. When it is understood that the social norm is to value time with your family above all else, the pressures to overwork yourself, to have the best clothes, to have a perfect home for your next dinner party, to save money for a bigger house, would be lifted. Americans spend so much of their time focused on things other than their family. For many people I’ve met and known, personal goals and success and wealth come before time spent with the family. Many Americans, tragically, have even convinced themselves that focusing on these things to earn more money for their families is more important than spending that precious time side-by-side.
I have to admit, I found this book a little disheartening. I think many people read this book, myself included, curious to discover examples we could use in our everyday lives, things we may be able to do for our children to help them focus on the important things. However, many of the key differences were cultural values that Americans have simply lost sight of. The values of family, independence, and togetherness, have been put on the back burner and replaced by things like professional success, individual needs and goals, and child safety at the cost of independence.
As a homeschooling parent, I don’t categorize myself as a “typical” American parent. A lot of the examples in this book are things I already do. My 4-year-old plays outside unattended. My 8-year-old often cooks himself lunch. I don’t activate parental controls on every device, thinking I can censor the world for my children through a rose-colored lens. Rather, we have frequent discussions about values, right and wrong, the possible outcomes of the choices we can make when we are online. I trust my kids will do what they think is the right thing. I also expect that they will fail sometimes. I try not to hover and I (try to) silence the voice inside me that begs them to, “be careful.” But I cannot keep them from American societal norms. I cannot allow my 8 year old son to walk to the park alone (although he begs to,) because in America that type of freedom earns you a visit from child protective services. And while I try to have a family dinner a few nights per week, I work most nights and frequently that means dinner for my kids is a bowl of cereal or frozen chicken nuggets heated up by a babysitter.
This book confirmed that many of the freedoms I give my children that sometimes earn me odd looks from my neighbors, are, in fact, what is best for them. But there are a great many things all of us could do better. I hope that by the time my children are parents themselves, society looks a little different from the money-obsessed workaholics that we are today. I hope Americans can learn to focus on what really matters in life, family.