It's no coincidence that the Dutch shine through in reports such as the UN's World Happiness Report. From what I see around me, the Dutch work consciously to raise happy, healthy, independent children* and I consider myself lucky to be raising three children here.
So, for the record, here are my six reasons why I'm happy I'm raising my children in the Netherlands.
1. School Allows Children to be Children
Dutch children are allowed to concentrate on what they do best: they are given plenty of time for the important job of play. Even though the majority of Dutch children start school at the age of 4 (though not mandatory until age 5) the theme running through their days remains 'play'. They learn through play (spelenderwijs leren) and only when they start in group 3 (when they are 6 or 7) is there any pressure on them to formally start reading and writing. The foundation is laid in the earlier school years whilst there are no expectations of them. By the time they reach group 3 most children have learnt the basics of reading and writing in a playful, 'no pressure' manner.
My experience is that the focus in groups 1 and 2 of our little Dutch school is to help children work self sufficiently, to raise their social awareness, learn how to co-operate in a group, to look after and out for each other. These are the years that my children learn that there are rules and boundaries outside of their home too, in a classroom. But they learn this in a safe, respectful, playful way.
My four year old has day and week tasks that consist of things like finger painting an autumn tree and building a hut with blocks. He proudly tells me how hard he has worked, how he has completed his week tasks and yet, in reality, he has spent the week creating and playing. Oh, and learning.
Their future is not mapped out by the age of four.
My children will only start getting homework when they move to group 6. Yes, my eldest is asked to practice his times tables at home, and in group 1 and 2 he took bear home and (mama) had to write about what bear had done over the weekend, but hours of maths and language homework after school? No, not until he is nine or ten, and even then it is given in moderation.
This gives my children time to do what they do best; they come home from school and play. Which brings me nicely to my second reason.
2. An Outdoor Culture
The Dutch are outdoor people. And so are their children. If they are not cycling they are on steps, skateboards or roller skates. In winter they are on sledges or ice skates.
Children are encouraged to play on the streets in residential areas (where traffic signs indicate children are at play and the speed limit is severely reduced).
My children love being outdoors, love being active in all sorts of weather. It reminds me of my own childhood in Britain in the 1980s, when we entertained ourselves out on the street with nothing but our imaginations, or perhaps a ball and our bikes.
3. Child Friendly Society
We don't have to walk far in our neighborhood to stumble over yet another children's playground or park. They are all small scale but varied and numerous. If we really wanted to, we could visit a different playground on foot each day of the week. Neighbourhoods are designed with children in mind.
Similarly, many restaurants are child friendly and the amount of amusement parks, animal parks and children's attractions across the Netherlands is just staggering for such a small country. There's more than enough to entertain children of all ages.
4. A Sense of Community
Like many playgrounds, Dutch primary schools are also small scale, but numerous, and children usually attend a school close to home. School catchment areas are generally quite small (but not fixed - if you want to send your child to a school further away you may).
This means that school runs are generally done on foot or by bike, and when primary school children are older it gives them a sense of independence that children don't feel being ferried to school in big cars, the type you see clogging up the roads around the schools in England.
I like that the Dutch tend to keep things local. My children go to school with children they live near. After school children play together in the local playgrounds with their classmates. It gives a sense of community. Work together, play together.
5. Dutch State
The importance of family filters down from the politicians. There are various state benefits for families with children: subsidies for child care as well as child benefit payments. State education is free. The Dutch youth care system is wide and varying - and in most cases the services are free.
It starts from birth with help from kraamzorg and continues with visits to the consultatiebureau, which, love it or hate it, is undeniably a unique service for parents. The system may not be perfect, but whenever I have needed a helping hand as a parent I've had welcome support. Even though I am an expat with a small family support network, I feel like I have people to lean on if I need it, because of the Dutch youth system.
|This could easily be the motto of the Dutch when it comes to raising children|
6. Work Life Balance
Last but absolutely not least, the focus on striking a balance between working and family life is extensive. Putting the emphasis on family life is ingrained in Dutch society.
More than a fair share of the working population works part-time, predominantly women, all with the aim of being around for their children and working around school hours. Again, love it or loathe it it is how it is. I happen to love it.
Parents, whatever their situation, need to find a work and family balance that works for them and the Dutch attitude and family culture means that parents have options.
Children have parents that, in general, have the opportunities and time to be present and involved.
It's Not Hagelslag, It's Attitude
So, my belief is that the happiness of Dutch children has nothing to do with hagelslag (sprinkles) on bread for breakfast as others have lightheartedly suggested, rather it stems from an attitude, a deep ingrained culture that focuses on children and allows them to make the most of childhood.
Dutch parents around me don't put pressure on their children to grow up fast. Instead, they give them permission to be children for as long as possible and not worry about their future at a young age. I recently read a few articles about American parents pressuring their children to excel in many fields from a young age, both in and out of school, children that have an after school activity schedule that would make most Dutch children's eyes water.
It's true that the Dutch have a reputation for being liberal, a bit too liberal on some matters in some culture's eyes, but what I see is an openness and a manner of carefully considered parenting that seems to work, which seems to foster independent children that feel listened to, that feel valued. Ones that are keen to tell researchers who care to ask that they are happy with their lot.
So, I for one intend to keep watching the parenting examples around me, and dish out good doses of Dutch parenting to my three sons. Hopefully, one day, when a UN researcher asks them questions for her World Happiness Report they'll be as positive in their answers as the children that have gone before them.
What do you think makes Dutch children fare so well in happiness studies?Does the parenting culture in your host country differ widely to that in your birth country? Is the local parenting culture where you live something you aspire to?
*It goes without saying, but I'll say it anyway, that Dutch society has it's share of problems, and that includes the lives of some children too. Some Dutch children live in poverty, some Dutch children live with absent parents, some Dutch children are deeply unhappy. I am in no way suggesting with this post that all Dutch children are ecstatically happy. However, there is a general culture related to parenting that I see every day around me. And that is the essence of this post.*