Want to raise happy children? Take a leaf out of the Dutch book

Want to raise happy children? Take a leaf out of the Dutch book
Pupils sing 'Happy birthday' to Nelson Mandela at Rosebank Primary School in Johannesburg on 18 July 2011. Care theorist Nel Noddings argues that like the best homes, schools should be happy places where children can 'seize their educational opportunities with delight'. (Photo: Gallo Images / The Times / Alon Skuy)

Dutch children come out on top as the happiest all around, and a book explains just how parents and schools in the Netherlands do it.

Everyone wants their child to be happy. Happiness has been a theme in philosophy since the time of Plato. The late Nel Noddings, the prominent care theorist, wrote about happiness and education. She was concerned that our schools did so little to help children live happy lives. She wondered what we were actually trying to accomplish in schools and for whom.

A practical book on the topic of happiness is The Happiest Kids in the World, a book written by two mothers who have observed the Dutch and their ways. Rina Mae Acosta and Michele Hutchison are both married to Dutchmen and are raising their children in Holland. They examine the unique environment that enables the Dutch to turn out such contented, well-adjusted and healthy babies and children and set out to answer questions like why do Dutch babies seem so content and sleep so well? Why do Dutch parents let their kids play outside on their own? Why do the Dutch trust their children to bike to school? Why do Dutch schools not set homework for the under-10s?

I have spent a fair amount of time in the Netherlands, and I wrote much of this article on a flight back from there. I have observed my wife’s relatives raising their children. I have also had the pleasure of visiting Dutch schools and teacher colleges.

Some of the key differences between Dutch children and those elsewhere in the world are that Dutch babies get more sleep, children have little or no homework at primary school, they are not just seen but also heard, are trusted to ride their bikes to school on their own, are allowed to play outside unsupervised, have regular family meals, get to spend more time with their mothers and fathers and last, but not least, get to eat chocolate sprinkles called hagelslag for breakfast.

Dutch children come out on top as the happiest all around in a study on child well-being by Unicef, the UN Children’s Fund. Norway is second and Finland third. According to researchers, Dutch children are ahead of their peers in childhood well-being compared with 29 of the world’s richest industrialised countries. In the Netherlands, children like going to school. They are among the least likely to feel pressured by schoolwork and scored highly in terms of finding their classmates friendly and helpful.

In Dutch primary schools, children start school at four, but they don’t officially start structured learning – reading, writing and arithmetic – until they are six. That’s in their third year. If they do show interest in these subjects earlier, they are given the materials to explore them for themselves.

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Hutchison’s own children learnt to read and write in their first year of school this way, but according to her, there was no pressure. Friends who learnt to read later, at six or seven, showed no particular disadvantage and soon caught up. Children at primary school aren’t expected to do homework and they don’t swot for exams. It’s the kind of childhood that a lot of parents here in South Africa would love.

No Baby Einsteins

I now paraphrase liberally from Acosta and Hutchison’s book, which shows how the Dutch do not care if little Sophie or Sem is a piano prodigy, a chess champion, or an Instagram model famous by the age of two. There are no Baby Einstein DVDs being played, no flash cards being used, and definitely no baby enrichment classes or baby gyms outside the major cities. The Dutch aren’t concerned about their babies being the smartest, and seem to just want them to be the easiest.

Dutch society has fought for and achieved an enviable work-life balance. They are the leaders of part-time work in Europe and work on average 29 hours a week and dedicate at least one day a week to spending time with their children. From my own observations, this is often because childcare is expensive.

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The authors argue that you won’t find a Dutch mother expressing guilt about the amount of time she spends with her children – she will make a point of finding time for herself outside motherhood and work. The authors also note that Dutch mothers don’t do things for their children that they are capable of doing themselves – they believe in encouraging independence at the appropriate age.

Dutch fathers are not afraid of their parenting role, and play an equal part in child rearing and household chores. From my observations, I would say this is true more so for the current generation.

Fathers look after their children on their days off and help put the little ones to bed. According to Acosta and Hutchison, you’re just as likely to see a dad pushing a pram or wearing a baby carrier as a mother.

Discipline is not punishment-based and it is rather about teaching socially appropriate behaviour. In a society without a strong social hierarchy, deferring to your elders or betters is a foreign concept, so you don’t get the kind of polite deference from children that you might get in France or in Asia.

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Dutch children are expected to be friendly and helpful towards their elders, but not to automatically defer to them. Everyone is on an equal footing. Children are unlikely to be wilfully disobedient, but they are more likely to fight their corner.

Most Dutch teenagers don’t possess that posturing arrogance, but rather a mature self-assurance. Even though it is culturally acceptable to have romantic sleepovers in some families, the Netherlands also has one of the lowest rates of teenage pregnancy in the world. The authors argue that these well-adjusted children grow up prepared to deal with the trials and tribulations of adult life.

Sobering stats

Binge drinking, which is such a problem among teenagers in Britain and other parts of the world, is not a behaviour that Dutch parents of teenagers worry about. In an Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development study, the UK, Estonia and Denmark are at the top of the list, with the Netherlands last of the 26 countries surveyed. Research also suggests that children who have a good relationship with their parents drink less.

Drug use in the Netherlands is an interesting issue because of the government’s liberal approach. Although there are a lot of “coffee shops”, they are off limits to under-18s and cannot operate near schools.

Dutch society is less materialistic and the Dutch opt for time, not money, and practicality over luxury goods. What Dutch children grow accustomed to in childhood sets them up for life: they are pragmatic and confident, unhampered by anxieties about status. However, I think this trend will certainly change with a stronger American influence on society.

The norm in the Netherlands is simplicity: families tend to choose simple, low-cost activities and take a back-to-basics approach. Children are used to having second-hand toys. The authors speak of the annual King’s Day in April. As part of this celebration, the Vondelpark in Amsterdam is transformed into a vast open-air children’s market, and this is replicated in villages and towns around the country.

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Whereas many children in developed countries are being brought up surrounded by the trappings of a consumer economy and demand the latest toys and fashions – I must say I found this true of Dutch teens too – Dutch children are also playing outdoors in nearly-new clothes on second-hand roller-skates. Birthdays and most other celebrations are more about celebrating togetherness. There’s a silent pact that gifts for your children’s friends’ birthdays should cost no more than €10.

Back to Noddings. She argued that work life in the late 20th century had changed dramatically in the US. She observed that women were rarely full-time homemakers solely dedicated to the care and guidance of their children.

Schools were therefore charged to do much of the work of families and they needed to resemble the best homes and provide continuity and care. They needed to protect children from harm and promote joy in learning. She went on to argue that like the best homes, schools should be happy places where children can “seize their educational opportunities with delight”.

There you have it: some clues as to how your own child can become the happiest person in the world. DM168

Mark Potterton is school principal of Sacred Heart College (Pre-Primary and Primary).

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.


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