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Why Are Dutch Kids So Much Happier Than American Kids?

On a list of happy children topped by the Netherlands, the U.S. came in 26th of 29 countries.

Why Are Dutch Kids So Much Happier Than American Kids?
[Photo: Daniela Denková/Getty Images]

Children in the Netherlands are the happiest kids in the whole wide world, according to Unicef, whereas U.S. kids ranked at number 26 on a list of 29 countries, beating only Lithuanian, Latvian, and Romanian children. Those countries are also the three poorest on Unicef’s list. That’s its own problem, but why are the children in the Netherlands so much happier? It’s all down to lifestyle and parenting, say a U.K. and a U.S. mother, both of whom are married to Dutchmen and live in Holland.

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Writing in the Telegraph, Rina Mae Acosta Michele Hutchison list the differences between life for Dutch children, and life for kids from their home countries. The differences are startling, but obvious in how they benefit the kids.

First off, school isn’t a big deal. Kids don’t have homework, they don’t take endless tests, and don’t actually start learning to read or do arithmetic until they are six years old. The first few years of school are spent just being kids. If children do show an interest in math or reading, though, they are given materials and allowed to explore by themselves. “In the Netherlands,” write Acosta and Hutchison, “children like going to school. Dutch children are among the least likely to feel pressured by schoolwork and scored highly in terms of finding their classmates friendly and helpful.”

[Photo: Marcel ter Bekke/Getty Images]

Outside of school, parents are also less demanding, both of themselves and of their kids. “Because they are more forgiving of their own imperfections and shortfalls, they’re able to enjoy parenthood,” say Acosta and Hutchison. This means that the kids are also free of the pressures forced upon them by competitive American parents, and are therefore much happier. Dutch kids are also more independent–“Dutch mums don’t do for their children things they are capable of doing themselves”–and this lets parents spend more time by themselves, which again makes everyone more relaxed.

Parents also split the child-rearing responsibilities, with fathers taking an equal role. “You’re just as likely to see a dad pushing a pram or wearing a baby carrier as a mum,” say the authors.

Discipline is another area where things are different. Kids aren’t punished. They are taught “socially appropriate behavior,” but kids aren’t expected to be mindlessly obedient to adults. This makes them act more like grown ups. In fact, say Acosta and Hutchison, kids treated this way are less likely to be willfully disobedient. Even so, they will stand up for themselves, arguing their point of view if they feel like it. That seems to be a great way to produce happy and balanced adults, too.

Another big difference is that kids are allowed to go outside and get on with things. They bike to school in the rain, they play outside unsupervised, learning independence, and not to be cowed by bad weather.

There’s more–go and read the whole article–but the gist is that kids should be kids. Help them when they need it, but don’t baby them when they don’t. Let them play instead of indoctrinating them to work long hours with homework. Give them independence, and don’t feel guilty about having your own life as a parent. It sounds so simple, but if you try a lot of these things in the U.S. you might end up getting arrested.

About the author

Previously found writing at Wired.com, Cult of Mac and Straight No filter.

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