Studies have found that Dutch children are the happiest kids in the world and that their mothers are pretty happy, too. After seven years of living among them, I think there’s a pretty good chance they may also be the most relaxed moms in the world.
I moved to the Netherlands with a 3- and 1-year-old and quickly added a third child to the mix. Since then I’ve clocked up many hours at the park and school pick-ups and am easy to spot. I don’t just stand out physically among the impossibly tall, blonde and svelte Dutch moms, but I also seem to be the only one even remotely frazzled.
Whether balancing multiple kids on their bike or letting a 3-year-old’s tantrum play itself out, Dutch moms manage to keep their cool. I’ve yet to spot a Dutch mom raising her voice at her children. Relaxed isn’t code for uninvolved or absent, either. Dutch mothers, in my observation, enjoy being around their kids, listen to their opinions, give constructive direction and prioritize family time. And they never seem to be strung out.
So what’s their secret? And is it something that can be learned?
Living in one of the most densely populated countries in Europe it’s pretty hard to ignore your neighbors, not to mention the famed Dutch aversion to curtains. Despite the lack of privacy there is very little sense of keeping up with the Joneses — or the de Vrieses, as the case may be. As a result, parents aren’t pulled into a vortex where each birthday party needs to be bigger and better than the last, or where clothes will determine social standing at school. Kids’ parties are simple and, most importantly, gezellig (cozy). They are usually celebrated at home with a small circle of friends and spending around 10 euros ($11) on a gift is perfectly acceptable. Since moving here I’ve only once had my daughter come home from school and ask for a particular brand of sneakers, and I suspect it was only because they were (hideously) rhinestone-encrusted.
One of the biggest things I’ve noticed since moving to the Netherlands is that children aren’t held up as a reflection of their parents. Little Janneke’s or Joost’s accomplishments (or shortcomings) aren’t judged as a product of their parenting. I was taken aback when a Dutch parent casually mentioned how her son was smarter than a friend of his. It wasn’t the fact she offered this information that surprised me, but the way she delivered it: matter of fact, devoid of ego and without a hint of subtext that this somehow made her son better than his friends.
The saying that best encapsulates the Dutch approach to life is “doe maar gewoon, dan doe je al gek genoeg” or roughly “just act normal, that’s crazy enough.” In a culture where people aren’t encouraged to stand out or be different, pressure on children to be exceptional is also reduced. Homework is unusual in Dutch primary schools and students have one afternoon a week off school, which means kids have lots of time and space to be … kids. Dutch children are given lots of autonomy and the freedom to explore, while parents aren’t burdened with the expectation that their child has to be the best in order to succeed.
If that isn’t enough, the Dutch have figured out another huge part of being able to keep your sanity as a mom: Part-time work. More than 70 percent of Dutch women work part-time, and are happy to do so. Part-time work may well be the not-so-secret ingredient to staying calm and relaxed as a mom. It gives Dutch women the freedom to stay engaged in the workplace, earn money and nurture a professional identity while still having time to meet a friend for coffee. By removing the worry of losing your identity to motherhood, or the stress of not being able to remember the last time you were home before 10 p.m., working part-time makes it that much easier to enjoy the time you have with your kids.
The Dutch social welfare state also provides an important safety net that takes a lot of pressure off parents and kids alike. Schools are free, or close to it, compulsory health insurance covers a huge chunk of medical and hospital expenses and Dutch parents even get an quarterly stipend from the government to help cover the costs of raising a child. This system gives parents the freedom to work part-time, and takes the pressure off parents to see their kids succeed at school or suffer the consequences as adults.
Some parts of the calm and steady Dutch approach to parenting are ingrained in their DNA and remain as elusive to me as their long legs and cycling prowess. The Dutch are naturally very emotionally regulated. You’re not going to see the same outbursts of expression here that you’ll find in much of Southern Europe. It may not sound like a great compliment to bestow on a nation, but being emotionally level is a huge help in patiently dealing with children’s meltdowns and not resorting to warnings involving numbers. Or at least this is what I tell myself at the playground as I give my kids just one more chance … again.
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