For many parents, their children’s happiness is the most important thing. But it can be difficult to know the best way to give it to them. It’s hard to know what exactly will make our children happy. But recent figures show we should take a leaf out of the books of Dutch parents.
In 2013, a Unicef report rated Dutch children the happiest in the world. According to researchers, they are ahead of their peers in childhood wellbeing when compared with 29 rich, industrialised countries. The UK came 16th. The study assessed a number of categories — material wellbeing, health and safety, education, behaviours and risks, and housing and environments. Children from the Netherlands were in the top five in each category. Perhaps most important of all was that 95 per cent of Dutch children considered themselves happy when rating themselves.
American and British mums Rina Mae Acosta and Michele Hutchison married Dutchmen and raised their kids in the Netherlands. They noticed the difference in children there and decided to write a book, The Happiest Kids in the World, full of tips for other parents around the globe.
Michele, originally from the West Midlands, says: ‘Dutch childhood consists of lots of freedom, plenty of play and little academic stress. They’re self-aware and confident, are able to foster meaningful ties with family members, build loyal friendships, find love and discover their place in the world.’
Michelle says: ‘Dutch parents work on coaching their children to be independent. It means coming to terms with your own anxieties and redirecting them towards preparing your children for real rather than imagined risks. This means, for example, making sure children act safely around traffic and can swim. But they have to be given the space to learn these things. If they are overprotected they won’t. In our book, we explain how to do this.’
Acosta and Hutchison also argue that parents in the Netherlands are much happier. They don’t have anxiety about their children or the way they’re bringing them up. There is no competition or comparison with others, and they’re good at putting things into perspective, and understanding the real dangers posed to their kids. This, in turn, does not pass on any anxiety to the children.
But what steps can we take to increase our children’s happiness?
Michelle says: ‘A good place to start is to take a few steps back and allow your child a slightly longer leash. See what they are capable of and increase freedoms in small steps.
‘An independent child will also benefit their parents who will have more time for their own activities. Eat together as often as possible and do simple things together as a family. Keep lines of communication open, especially with older children.’
Edited by Kim Gregory
Try some of these tips from the book to make your child happier
‘Doe maar gewoon’ is a national saying, meaning ‘Just act normal’. It’s about accepting yourself for who you are. Life isn’t perfect, and no one expects you to be perfect. The Dutch understand the messiness and imperfections of life, and value genuineness. When it comes to parenting, doe maar gewoon is all about doing the best you can.
Don’t pressure them. Dutch kids aren’t pressured to excel in school and have very little stress. Under the age of 10, they have no homework and plenty of time to play after school. Acosta and Hutchison enjoy that their children can attend school purely for the sake of learning, rather than focusing on their actual academic performance.
Eat breakfast as a family. Unicef concluded that Dutch children and teens reported eating breakfast with their family on a regular basis — while other countries don’t. This encourages better school performance, a decrease in behavioural problems, and a chance for family bonding and fostering individual identity and growth.
Encourage expressing opinions. Dutch children are the type that are seen and heard. From the moment they can formulate an opinion, Dutch children are given a voice — and their parents listen.
Initiate ‘Oma day’. Oma means grandmother in Dutch. A lot of Dutch grandmothers take great pride in helping out their children, playing a pivotal role in their lives and the building of self-esteem. Regular childcare services
from Oma means parents can better attain their work-life balance. And happy parents means happy kids!
Hands-on dads. Many dads take on part-time work to help out mums, so their work-life balance does not weigh them down.
Let your kids play out. Dutch parents 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. In the UK, parents are too worried about dangers publicised in newspapers, while Dutch parents are good at putting things into perspective.
Bike-riding. From about 10 years of age, Dutch children have the freedom to cycle off to school and visit friends. It gives them confidence, exercise and loads of independence.