I'm always a little circumspect when reading reports that generalise about 'the happiest people in the world' or 'the best place for expats to live', but with so many people talking about how happy children in The Netherlands are, I thought I'd take a closer look. It is, after all, a subject close to my heart, having spent the majority of my formative years there.
A 2013 UNICEF report comparing the wellbeing of children in 29 of the world's advanced economies rated Dutch children the happiest, with The Netherlands ranking in the top 5 for all categories assessed. By comparison, British children were rated 16th overall.
For most parents, raising a happy child is the pinnacle of parenting achievement, but in recent years the road to happiness has become muddied by a culture of accelerating consumerism, the impact of new technologies, a competitive ethic (for the best school places, to take one example), and many other trends. We all know that happiness doesn't come from having the latest iPhone, the most followers on Instagram or a Spelling Bee trophy on the mantle-piece, but where exactly can we find it? Here's my take on what makes Dutch children so happy.
Dutch kids are generally pretty fit, spending much of their time playing outside, participating in sports or riding their bikes. They're not always ferried from A to B by their parents - if they want to go to school, to their friend's house or to the shops, they often cycle there. This exercise not only releases endorphins into the brain, increasing the child's happiness, but also helps to manage stress. Furthermore, we all know that a healthy body leads to a healthy mind, and such an active lifestyle can only have positive effects on a child's confidence, ability to learn and overall state of wellbeing.
Children are encouraged to play with their friends, independently and unsupervised, and are allowed a great deal of freedom to socialise. They cycle to their friends' houses, or to the shops and the cinema, or to the park for a friendly game of football - and just as long as they return by the specified time, everyone is happy. Naturally, this freedom gives children the opportunity to fine-tune their social skills and develop deep friendships, but what may be less obvious, is that they grow as individuals, sharing the respect that's been given to them with others and developing a greater sense of self-worth. The mantras I am trusted, I am allowed to make decisions, and I am valued for who I am, go a long way in building happiness.
The education system
In Holland, primary school children aren't expected to do homework, and have relatively stress-free schooling. Dutch children don't start structured learning - reading, writing, and arithmetic - until the age of six. Furthermore, school interviews, league tables and ranked university places don't really exist in the same way that they do in the UK. This plays a huge role in childhood happiness, as children have more free time to play, less pressure from the education system, and are able to enjoy school without fear of testing and failure. This builds a strong foundation and love of learning, which children take with them into secondary school, so that when they do begin receiving homework they understand its value and are less inclined to rebel against it.
Naturally, this creates a happier home life, as arguments about homework are less frequent, and more positive relationships between parent and child are formed. Children are treated like small adults and are often invited to family discussions to help make important decisions.
In The Netherlands, the overall standard of living is high and flexible working hours are easier to come by. Family life is a high priority for companies wishing to ensure the happiness of their employees, and parents generally have more time to spend with their children, creating firm routines around mealtimes and 'family' times. Parents are free to relax or complete a few chores while their kids play independently after school, allowing the family to spend quality time together at dinner. Children are also more likely to enjoy this family time after they've been given their own space, rather than being collected from school by an adult, arriving home to complete homework and having very little free time to spend on their own or with friends before having to sit down as a family for dinner.
When children are respected, trusted and given large levels of independence, they develop greater confidence in themselves and their innate abilities. They also mirror this respect more readily to the adults in their lives. As American novelist, James Baldwin, so very succinctly put it: "Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them". Similarly, children are acutely aware of adults' emotions and easily pick up on stress and depression, so the fact that parents in Holland have more freedom themselves to enjoy their family life can only serve to further enhance the happiness of their children.
So what can we learn from this?
Children, like any other young animals, need time to play. It's how they learn. So let's not push them into formal education at younger and younger ages. There's no statistical evidence that this provides any academic benefit to the child - in fact the evidence suggests the opposite. Let children play. Afford them some independence and respect. Give them a voice. Keep them active, without forcing activities onto them. Respect their need for space and guard against social media addiction. Encourage them to get outside and enjoy nature, whatever the weather. And above all, listen to them, respect their opinions and treat them as you would any other human being.