One of my favourite things about our vibrant Raised Good community are the inspiring people I’ve been lucky enough to cross paths with and the incredible lessons they’ve taught me about life, love and happiness. Back in March this year, Jessica Joelle Alexander, emailed me about her book The Danish Way of Parenting, asking if I’d like to read it.
Life was full at the time and it took me a couple of months to open it, but when I did I couldn’t put it down. The simplicity of her and co-author, Iben Sandahl’s message is compelling and based around the question: why are the Danish people consistently reputed to be the happiest in the world? They suggest their elevated level of innate happiness may be rooted in the way the nation’s children are parented.
It’s logical, makes sense and it’s a notion which has impacted my decision making as a conscious parent for the last few years. Surely happy babies are more likely to become happy children and subsequently, happy adults. The way we parent our children matters and the Dane’s unique approach seems to be working.
Jessica and Iben outline six simple steps to guide parents on how to cultivate lasting happiness in our own families, no matter where we live. What I love most about The Danish Way is it’s refreshing no nonsense approach to parenting, combined with realistic optimism, kindness and empathy. The ironic acronym used to remember the six pillars of this philosophy is PARENT. Here’s an insight into what the Danes do a little differently.
P IS FOR PLAY
Play is the language of children and in Denmark protecting children’s right to free play is taken very seriously; it’s considered crucial, not optional. Over scheduling kids is actively avoided; you’re more likely to hear a Danish parent say their child is going to play in the backyard on Saturday rather than take part in organised sport. And by “play” they mean kids are left to their own devices, with a friend or alone, to play exactly as they see fit, for as long as they want.
The Danes recognize play teaches social skills, empathy, self-control, coping mechanisms, and much more. In stark contrast, in most western nations, free play is sadly becoming an endangered species. I was disturbed when I read an article yesterday reporting some parents are sending their children to “boot camp” to prepare them for kindergarten. Elizabeth Fraley, director of KinderPrep in Los Angeles says, “When children get into kindergarten, there is no play.” Taking away a child’s ability to play is like taking away their voice; our society needs to realize the detrimental effects of rushing children through childhood and learn from countries like Denmark who are taking a radical approach.
A IS FOR AUTHENTICITY
The Danes like to “keep it real”. They’re honest with their children about the good, bad and ugly of life. Danish movies, stories, and books often deal with difficult topics and don’t always have happy endings; science shows “keeping it real” can improve empathy skills as well as make us happier in a “count your blessings” kind of way.
This is perhaps one of the lessons I’ve personally been trying to implement most. For example, my son LOVES bugs and he’s so gentle with them, but he’s passionate about “families”. Whenever he finds a bug walking alone he tries to take them “back to their mamas”. Invariably, there are bug fatalities despite his best efforts and as a mother I find myself telling white lies – “the bug is just having a little sleep”. Then, a few weeks ago, he said to me, “No mama, the bug is dead”. He was fine and it reminded me not to shy away from the realities of life – and hopefully save a few bugs along the way!
As parents, we negotiate a fine line between exposing our children to age-appropriate topics we know they can understand and process, while shielding them from the harsh realities of our world, which sometimes I find I can’t even handle myself. Finding that balance can be very connecting; giving us the opportunity to talk through difficult emotions with our children, preparing them for life’s ups and downs and nourishing their resilience.
R IS FOR REFRAMING
Reframing is a cultural phenomenon in Denmark which is passed from one generation to the next; it’s incredibly powerful and results in the “realistic optimism” Danes are famous for. John Milton famously said, “The mind can make a heaven out of hell or a hell out of heaven.” I’ve found this especially true in parenting, as we’re pushed to our limits and often feel alone, without a village or family support. Being awake at 3am with a crying baby can easily be interpreted as hell. But flipping it on it’s head, accepting the reality, resisting labelling it and finding gratitude can make us joyful in the most unlikely of moments.
The Danish Way challenges us to alter our language and reinterpret situations in a less negative way, which is proven to change how we feel. Reframing can be learned and it is a life-changing skill, not only for kids, but for adults too.
E IS FOR EMPATHY
The Danes are one of the most empathic cultures in the world and it may be because they actively teach empathy in schools. It has the same value as subjects like Math or English, with programs in place to teach kids to identify others’ emotions and conceptualize themselves in others’ shoes.
As parents we can also help foster this important trait. Our children are born with an incredible ability for natural empathy – when a baby hears another baby crying, they’ll often start crying too. But we subconsciously drum it out of them; we do it out of love as we try to protect them from difficult emotions.
When our child sees another child hurt at the playground, our immediate reaction may be to say, “They’re fine, don’t worry”. It seems innocent enough but we’re teaching our kids they don’t need to worry about other’s feelings. Yet, if we tackle feelings head on and say something like, “He’s crying because he fell down and hurt his knee. It’s bleeding, but his mummy is there, she’ll give him a big hug, clean his knee and he’ll be ok”, kids can recognize and process emotions, while finding ways to help other’s and grow their ability for empathy.
N IS FOR NO ULTIMATUMS
No-ultimatums parenting is about avoiding power struggles. It’s about a win/win rather than an “I win” situation; it’s about seeing our children as allies rather than adversaries. Many conventional disciplinary practices such as spanking, time outs, punishments and rewards threaten to transform our homes into battlegrounds, which makes parenting a chore rather than a privilege.
Spanking has been illegal in Denmark for over twenty years, which reflects the society’s values and the democratic, respectful way in which parents choose to raise their children. Modelling respectful behaviour is the best way to teach children how we expect them to behave.
T IS FOR TOGETHERNESS (AND HYGGE)
Hygge, pronounced hooga, means “to cozy around together.” Hygge is spending time together with loved ones in a cozy, psychologically safe environment. Everyone enters into an unspoken agreement that, for this period of time, no one complains, brags or brings up negative or controversial topics; creating a drama-free space.
Children thrive in these intentionally positive moments; fostering happiness and wellbeing through prioritizing social connectedness. So the next time you have a family get together, try “hygge” (the rules are outlined in the book). My husband and I are implementing it with our little family and it is already bringing a sense of calm when we do. Our cell phones are less prominent and we’re focussing on the ones we’re with – nothing can make someone feel more loved than receiving your full attention. We’re excited to suggest it at larger family get togethers as well.
THE DANES ARE CONSCIOUS PARENTS
Learning about the way the Danish culture approaches parenting and the long term impacts it may be having on their nation’s happiness is fascinating. I also find it incredibly encouraging as it has so much in common with the way we’re already raising our son; with the way our growing Raised Good community feels about recognizing and responding to our children’s needs.
The only downside to The Danish Way is it highlights the lack of support for positive parenting choices we experience in our western cultures. But, short of moving to Denmark, I hope through this community and the positive message this book is spreading, we can support and inspire each other in our choices especially if they’re unconventional and against the mainstream. We’ll all be happier is we remain courageously open-minded and grow not only as parents but as people on this wonderful adventure with our children.
If you enjoyed this post, you may also like to read my recent post, Prioritizing Free Play May Reduce Teenage Anxiety and Depression.