Each culture has its own unique strengths and beautiful ways of living life, and parenting is no exception. The internet is full of memoirs, stories, advice, and even some criticism on the nuances of parenting in different cultures.
I have always enjoyed learning from these varied experiences, finding what's in common and keeping an open mind towards what's different. This has greatly enriched my parenting and increased my appreciation for all the unique ways to raise a child.
I recently read “The Happiest Kids in the World", a fascinating book written by two wise mothers – one American and the other British, who are now in the Netherlands with their husbands raising two kids each. It's a how-to book loaded with personal stories and a very honest narration of the struggles they both faced fitting into the Dutch world of parenting.
They both love it now, and after reading the whole book, I am not surprised. The book forced me to take a deeper look at my own parenting beliefs and behaviors. I didn't agree with everything, nor did I think every approach would work for my family, but I loved their perspective and wisdom and now feel a bit more empathetic, intentional, and “relaxed" in my parenting approach.
Here are eight lessons I took away from the book:
1. Let kids bike through the rain
Yes, the Dutch let their kids "literally" bike in the rain (with the right gear) to foster independence, resilience, and grit in their children. I wish I had the courage to do this, but I know we will be out in the rain a lot more than we have in the previous years.
We live sheltered, privileged lives. Biking in the rain is a simple yet powerful lesson in how to prepare for adversity, continue in the face of all odds, and find the magic in nature even when it's not perfect 70-degree California weather.
2. Be comfortable in your own skin
I was struck by the strong sense of confidence Dutch mothers have. They don't measure their worth by what they accomplish at work as much as we do here in the U.S. Working fewer hours, taking time to nourish themselves, and building strong communities seem to be more the norm than the exception.
While I am reasonably good at taking care of myself, learning to accept myself with my flaws and imperfections is a work in progress.
3. Make rules *with* your kids
The Dutch are big on engaging and empowering children to make rules together. It doesn't mean that children can have whatever they want. It means they have a voice in the family rules, which leads to fewer power struggles and discipline challenges.
I have personally seen this work well, even with a 3-year-old. We struggled a lot with our kiddo wanting the phone to watch "Peppa Pig." I was unsure how to draw firm boundaries, so one day, we discussed it. I asked him to pick a set time every day during which he could enjoy limited screen time. My son picked his five-minute ride to school. Our screen time struggles have diminished greatly.
4. Focus on simplicity
There were several examples of how the Dutch brought simplicity to their lives. For one, camping and the outdoors was a key part of the average family lifestyle, and three-day camping weekends are the norm. Birthday parties also seem to be simple, often with much more focus on children getting together to play.
I was also inspired by how Dutch families are frugal. They consider the real joy and value an additional expense brings versus an autopilot purchase. Secondhand children's goods are quite the norm in the Netherlands.
5. Your children are not an extension of you
This is my favorite lesson from the book. The Dutch believe that their children are their own independent people, not an extension of mom and dad. Children do not carry the responsibility of fulfilling mom and dad's dreams.
This reminded me of a quote from Carl Jung: "Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on their environment and especially on their children than the unlived life of the parent."
6. Model the behavior you want your kids to emulate
All parents across the world know this, but a disconnect prevails in the U.S. (I often catch myself forgetting this one.) Dutch mothers highly value attending to their needs and investing in themselves with almost no guilt. They understand that if they want to raise creative, resilient, happy kids, they must practice what they preach.
7. Family meals are sacred
The Dutch truly value family meals. These are not elaborate meals that inspire battles over getting your children to eat vegetables. Dutch are not health freaks. They don't constantly watch their calories or carbs. Meal times are meant for connection and joy as a family.
Interestingly, the Dutch will meet friends in the evening, but dinnertime is sacred family time. While I do enjoy having dinner with friends, I am an introvert who greatly values the opportunity to connect with my husband and kids. The Dutch approach reinforced my own belief in the importance of rituals and structure to create time and space for family.
8. Start the sex-education conversation early
The Dutch have a much more liberal approach when it comes to sex education and sexual activity. Co-ed sleepovers are the norm. Despite some eye rolls here, the data on overall positive outcomes with teenage pregnancies is fascinating.
Coming from a South Asian culture myself, I was struck by the open and trustworthy relationship that parents and children share on this topic. I am not sure how I will handle this 10 years from now, but I know I have some work to do.
I agree that starting the conversation early by answering kids' questions creates a positive and open atmosphere. Educating our children about their body parts in preschool, for example, can help break the ice and make both parents and children more comfortable having the hard conversations when the time comes.
The Happiest Kids in the World reminded me of the many things I aspire to as a parent, but often forget in the noise of the moment. I am learning to integrate the simplicity of Dutch parenting with the richness of my Silicon Valley lifestyle.
If you want to learn about different cultures, take a deeper look at your own parenting, and especially find more joy in it, this book will not disappoint.