The World’s Happiest People Share Their Parenting Secrets

Life

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 concerned when I read an article recently reporting that some parents are sending their children to “boot camp” to prepare them for kindergarten. As KinderPrep staff in Los Angeles suggest, “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.

COMMENTS
  • August 20, 2016
    Maria-Therese P. Larsson

    What a treat, yet another book giving and reminding us of what culture and tools we have and often just take for granted. I can’t wait to read it. In the first book you pinpoint details one dane at least was amazed and so happy to become aware of, you have no idea how much reading this book gave; I’m so grateful for this book and more so now for danish parenting culture. Thank you, kind regards mother to One, Therese

    • August 20, 2016
      Tracy Gillett

      Happy to hear you enjoyed The Danish Way Therese. Jessica and Iben are very talented writers and give an amazing insight into another culture. So valuable if we can open our minds and learn from others.

  • August 22, 2016
    Sasha

    Thank you! We live in the far north too, like the Danes, and the concept of hygge warms the long dark winter months. Sometimes at the end of summer (another 90 degree day!?), I find myself longing for 4:30 sunset, a down comforter, a couch full of sleepy dogs and the soft hush of snow falling outside. There’s something magical about relishing the coziness and curling up with loved ones, especially little ones and good books.

    • September 02, 2016
      louise

      Good for you Sasha! We have the same situation at our home and we totally relate.

    • September 02, 2016
      Tracy Gillett

      What a lovely image Sasha! Thank you for bringing it to life and for your comment. Much appreciated xx

  • August 27, 2016
    Paul

    Great article. As an American dad living in Denmark, I can say that much of this rings true. Denmark is a wonderful place to raise children. I am curious what Jessica’s views are about how the Danish experience changes when people become adults. I have noticed that there is a high rate of smoking, obsessive coffee drinking, and lots of alcohol drinking. These are not signs of real joy and happiness. The Danish culture is a very anxious culture, compared with many western countries. Jessica, if you are reading this, can you explain where the happiness goes in the adult years????

    • September 10, 2016
      Dawn

      Like Paul, I am also an American living in Denmark and agree this is fairly close description about parenting in Denmark. I am too perplexed why Danish adults seem to show behavior that is opposite of being truly happy.

  • August 28, 2016
    Emily

    I love this! 🙂

    • August 28, 2016
      Tracy Gillett

      Thanks SO much Emily!! xx

  • August 29, 2016
    Heather Weakland

    I’m glad to hear I’m already doing some of these things, and will be buying the book for more information! I’m a big believer in allowing my children to just play and they are only 4 and 2. I give them the freedom of playing in their room or by themselves some where in the house and I’ve noticed lately they are becoming more and more best friends! Its so precious to see!

    • September 02, 2016
      Tracy Gillett

      So true Heather and thank you for reading. Your kids sound adorable 🙂 Enjoy the book! xx

  • September 01, 2016
    Randi

    As a Dane, I think that it is important that we also trust our kids.
    When they are out playing, we trust they stay in the area that they are allowed, that they can walk home from school and things like that (when they are old enough).
    We trust other people to help if something goes wrong.

    My daughter got hurt on some broken glass when she had to buy something for me. And another adult helped her home. She still shops when I forgot to buy a thing because I trust her and the people around us.

    • September 02, 2016
      Tracy Gillett

      Thank you so much for your insightful comment and for reading Randi. Such an important point – that we need to TRUST our kids. Couldn’t agree more xx

  • September 02, 2016
    Laura

    Thank you. I am really glad I read this article. It sounds like I’m doing some of the things this book is teaching. Is the book still in print? I hope to purchase it and ‘devour’ it. Hopefully I can focus on it and read it. My daughter is currently 10 months. It sounds like an invaluable resource

    • September 02, 2016
      Tracy Gillett

      My pleasure Laura – happy you enjoyed it. Yes – the authors self published a year or so back and then were picked up by Penguin Random House who re-released the book on August 1st. It’s available here on Amazon. It’s such a great read 🙂

  • September 02, 2016
    Belen A. Vera

    Your article is a gentle reminder to all parents of today to go back to the basics, not only in parenting, but even also in life. We as parents ( and may I include grandparents) must model all of the 6 guides presented, as we are all aware that what we ARE is a more effective teaching tool than what we say.
    Thank you for your insightful article. I am a mother, grandmother and owner of an early childhood learning center…..and I have shared this to every parent I know in my circle. If this is just one way of us helping this world to become a better and happier place (by raising happy children become happy adults)…then so be it.

    • September 02, 2016
      Tracy Gillett

      Thank you Belen – what a lovely comment, I really appreciate it. You are right – I learnt as much from this book, and from most parenting books, about myself as I do about parenting. Thank you so much for sharing this with your group, that’s very kind. Another which may resonate with your group is one I wrote about simplifying children’s lives which I think is so important. Thanks again and stay in touch xx

  • September 02, 2016
    Pernille

    As a Dane much of what you describe here is not so much a deliberate choice in my family, but more a question of raising my kids more or less the way I was raised. I don’t really think much about it.
    The guideline I try to use in all my parenting (and the rest of my life) is that what you put into a relation, you get out of it too.
    Also, I think that the most important and valuable thing you can give your kids, is your time.
    I don’t try to shield my kids, I teach them how to handle the world instead. When our cat died I brought him back from the vet, the kids helped to bury him and then we bought flowers to plant on his grave – and we talked about death and cried over him, and they learned that it is okay to be sad and cry and how to handle grief.
    Our current “Project” is how to handle anger.

    • September 03, 2016
      Tracy Gillett

      Thank you Pernille for a wonderful comment and I love your honesty with your kids – I am trying to do it more and more in age-appropriate ways. Couldn’t agree more that what kids need most is our time and unconditional love.

  • September 04, 2016

    I just have one question. What do the Danes do when their children misbehave? We took our boys to Denmark last year and all the kids we saw were happy and calm and so were the parents! But it must happen sometimes that the children behave in a way that they don’t want, so how do they manage it?I want to be able to parent like the Danes do!

    • September 09, 2016
      Mette

      Well, I’m a Dane, loved the article, it describe us quite good.
      About the question regarding misbehavior. It’s a question of meeting the children “where they are” so to speak. Appreciative inquirers I would suppuce you would call it. It’s about having respekt for the child’s feelings. Say your child wants an icecream and you say no and the child misbehaves. The Dane is most likely to say “I can hear you want an ice cream, that would be nice. But we are not going to have one now dinner is soon”. Then you accept the child’s feelings but you are still the parent in charge. The child feels and thinks (subconscious) “mum understood me and told me why I wasn’t going to get an ice creme”
      In short therms 😃

  • September 07, 2016

    My kids are teens now, but that doesn’t make my job easier. These ideas are fantastic and help me feel less ashamed for going against the norm with the way I chose to parent. As someone with autism raising an autistic teen alone, I have found the Danish way to be a far better, less stressful approach. Thank you for posting this. It makes me smile and feel less alone.

    • September 08, 2016
      Tracy Gillett

      Oh my pleasure Laura and so happy to hear it resonated with you. And know what it’s like feeling alone – we’re a little minority but a passionate and happy one at that. Amazing you are raising an autistic son having autism yourself – he’s a lucky boy. Thanks again for reading xx

  • September 13, 2016
    Michael

    I love the concept of hygge. (I also love the pronunciation.) It is similar to something we already do in our home called Family Home Evening on Monday nights. I like that hygge adds no bragging and no phones.

    • September 13, 2016
      Tracy Gillett

      Me too Michael! Being intentional about something – like no bragging, no whinging, no phones – can make such a difference. And I personally find it so freeing! I need to do it more with my family 🙂 Thanks for reading and commenting

  • February 20, 2017
    Maria

    Obrigada pela partilha.
    Estou curiosa para ler o livro, vou procurar o livro cá em Portugal.
    Kiss
    Maria

  • June 06, 2017
    Hasan Raza

    Every word is meaningful, practical and logical. You have added an easier, healthier and joyful perspective to parenting. Thanks for guiding.
    Regards

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