Dutch children are regularly found to be the happiest in the world, according to those who measure these things. And as an expat raising children in the Netherlands it's easy to see why. The Dutch approach to parenting combines old-school family values with a very modern respect for children's autonomy and opinions. It not only produces very happy children, but children who grow up confident, resilient and sure of their place in the world.
So what are the secrets to raising such happy kids?
Family time is important to Dutch parents. Children regularly eat dinner with their parents at the (very Dutch) time of 6pm. Many fathers take advantage of a papadag (daddy day), a legally allowed (unpaid) day off work for dads to look after their children. I used to be able to count on one hand the number of dads at school pick up, now at the local Dutch school it's close to 50%. With many dads taking on part-time work and Dutch women leading the way with part-time work amongst OECD countries, Dutch parents are not weighed under by the demands of balancing work and family. And relaxed parents means relaxed kids.
Taking it easy
I'm guessing it must be cultural, but there's very little helicopter parenting going on in Dutch families. Parents have a pretty healthy attitude towards their kids, seeing them as individuals rather than extensions of themselves and not agonising over their achievements. They are realistic about their children's strengths and haven't created a culture of success where school grades are taken as a measure of worth.
Dutch parents also give their kids the freedom to explore and find their own boundaries. After school and on weekends the neighbourhood kids can usually be found playing out on the street. I recently discovered that I was the only parent going back and forth to let my kids inside the house. Our ingenious Dutch neighbours all have a string threaded through their letterbox attached to the door's lock, so with a tug on the string their kids are free to come inside when they please. And with no homework usually given to children under ten, there's lots of time to kick a football around in the street.
Freedom to ride
The Dutch love getting around on two wheels and dedicated bike paths and drivers reflexively looking out for cyclists means that it's very safe. From about 10 years of age kids in my neighbourhood have the freedom to cycle off to school, visit friends or go to weekend sports, giving them confidence, exercise and loads of independence- what pre-teen wouldn't be happy about that?
Kids' opinions count
When I arrived on the Netherlands and my children started at the local school I just assumed I was the one who should be fielding play date requests. What I soon noticed however is that the Dutch parents would always check with their children first. Asking a four year-old what they felt like seemed like a novel idea at the time (at least to me), but I've adopted this practice over the years and now see it as part of a bigger picture. Dutch parents listen to and respect their child's opinions, and it translates into producing the most confident teenagers I've ever met. It's not just teen arrogance or bluster, but a belief in themselves and their right to be heard and respected.
After six years in the Netherlands my children feel pretty Dutch. But never Dutch enough, according to them, when it comes to breakfast. While I torture my children with cereal and fruit, Dutch kids are tucking into their staple breakfast: hagelslag -chocolate sprinkles- liberally poured onto white bread smeared with butter. With this the start to the day, why wouldn't Dutch kids be the happiest?