Expat Life with a Double Buggy: The best reasons to raise kids in the Netherlands
The Dutch may have a reputation for being 'too liberal' but reports prove they raise some of the world's happiest children. What's the secret to Dutch parenting?
I live in the Netherlands where children generally fare well in happiness surveys, and Dutch children always rate much higher in the happiness stakes than British children ever do.
It's no coincidence that the Dutch shine through in reports such as the UN's World Happiness Report. From what I see around me in general, the Dutch work consciously to raise happy, healthy, independent children and as a British expat I consider myself lucky to be raising three children here. Here are my top reasons why I'm happy to raise my children in the Netherlands.
1. The school allows children to be children
Dutch children are allowed to concentrate on what they do best: they are given plenty of time for the important job of play. Even though the majority of Dutch children start school at the age of four (though not mandatory until age five) the theme running through their days remains 'play'. They learn through play (spelenderwijs leren) and only when they start in group three (when they are six or seven) is there any pressure on them to formally start reading and writing. The foundation is laid in the earlier school years while there are no expectations of them. By the time they reach group three, most children have learned the basics of reading and writing in a playful, 'no pressure' manner.
My experience is that the focus in groups one and two of our Dutch school is to help children work self-sufficiently, to raise their social awareness, learn how to co-operate in a group, and to look after and out for each other. These are the years that my children are learning that there are rules and boundaries outside of their home, too, in a classroom. But they learned this in a safe, respectful, playful way.
My four-year-old has day and week tasks that consist of things like finger painting an autumn tree and building a hut with blocks. He proudly tells me how hard he has worked, how he has completed his week tasks and yet, in reality, he has spent the week creating and playing. Oh, and learning. Their future is not mapped out by the age of four.
My children will only start getting homework when they move to group six. Sure, my eldest is asked to practise his times tables at home, and in group one and two, he took bear home and (mama) had to write about what bear had done over the weekend, but hours of maths and language homework after school? No, not until he is nine or 10, and even then homework is given in moderation.
This gives my children time to do what they do best; they come home from school and play. Which brings me nicely to my second reason.
2. An outdoor culture
The Dutch are outdoor people – and so are their children. If they are not cycling, they are on steps, skateboards or roller skates. In winter they are on sledges or ice skates.
Children are encouraged to play on the streets in residential areas (where traffic signs indicate children are at play and the speed limit is severely reduced).
My children love being outdoors, love being active in all sorts of weather. It reminds me of my own childhood in Britain in the 1980s, when we entertained ourselves out on the street with nothing but our imaginations, or perhaps a ball and our bikes.
3. Child-friendly society
We don't have to walk far in our neighbourhood to stumble over yet another children's playground or park. They are all small-scale but varied and numerous. If we really wanted, we could visit a different playground on foot each day of the week. Neighbourhoods are designed with children in mind.
Similarly, many restaurants are child-friendly and the amount of amusement parks, animal parks and children's attractions across the Netherlands is just staggering for such a small country. There's more than enough to entertain children of all ages.
4. A sense of community
Like many playgrounds, Dutch primary schools are also small scale, but numerous. Children usually attend a school close to home. School catchment areas are generally quite small (but not fixed – if you want to send your child to a school farther away, you can).
This means that school runs are generally done on foot or by bike, and when primary school children are older it gives them a sense of independence that children ferried to school in big cars (the type you see clogging up the roads around the schools in England) don't feel.
I like that the Dutch tend to keep things local. My children go to school with children they live near. After school, children play together in the local playgrounds with their classmates. It gives a sense of community. Work together, play together.
5. Dutch state
The importance of family filters down from the politicians. There are various state benefits for families with children: subsidies for childcare as well as child benefit payments. State education is free. The Dutch youth care system is wide and varying – and in most cases the services are free.
It starts from birth with help from kraamzorg and continues with visits to the consultatiebureau, which, love it or hate it, is undeniably a unique service for parents. The system may not be perfect, but whenever I have needed a helping hand as a parent I've had welcome support. Even though I am an expat with a small family support network, I feel like I have people to lean on if I need it, because of the Dutch youth system.
This could easily be the motto of the Dutch when it comes to raising children.
6. Work-life balance
Last but absolutely not least, the focus on striking a balance between work and family life is extensive. Putting the emphasis on family life is ingrained in Dutch society.
More than a fair share of the working population works part-time, predominantly women, all with the aim of being around for their children and working around school hours. Again, love it or loathe it, this is how it is. I happen to love it.
Parents, whatever their situation, need to find a work and family balance that works for them and the Dutch attitude and family culture means that parents have options. Children have parents that, in general, have the opportunities and time to be present and involved.
7. It's not hagelslag, it's attitude
My belief is that the happiness of Dutch children has nothing to do with hagelslag (sprinkles) on bread for breakfast as others have lightheartedly suggested. Rather, it stems from an attitude, a deep ingrained culture that focuses on children and allows them to make the most of childhood.
Dutch parents around me don't put pressure on their children to grow up fast. Instead, they give them permission to be children for as long as possible and not worry about their future at a young age. I have read a few articles about American parents pressuring their children to excel in many fields from a young age, both in and out of school, children that have an after school activity schedule that would make most Dutch children's eyes water.
It's true that the Dutch have a reputation for being liberal, a bit too liberal on some matters in some cultures' eyes, but what I see is an openness and a manner of carefully considered parenting that seem to work. It seems to foster independent children that feel listened to, and feel valued; ones that are keen to tell researchers who care to ask that they are happy with their lot.
So I, for one, intend to keep watching the parenting examples around me, and dish out good doses of Dutch parenting to my three sons. Hopefully, one day, when a UN researcher asks them questions for their World Happiness Report, they'll be as positive in their answers as the children that have gone before them.
What do you think makes Dutch children fare so well in happiness studies? Does the parenting culture in your host country differ widely to that in your birth country, or is something you aspire to?
Amanda van Mulligen is a British expat who has made the Netherlands her home. She has three Dutch sons who are tinged with Britishness, and a pure bred Dutch husband. She is also a published author, freelance writer and blogger. You can read her blog at Expat Life with a double buggy where she scribbles about her expat way of loving, living and parenting. You can catch up with her on Facebook, Twitter or Pinterest.
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