Denmark has it right when it comes to Lego, Hans Christian Andersen and the delectable sweet pastry, the Danish. The nation also has bragging rights when it comes to raising the world’s happiest children; and its next best export may just be sharing the secret of the Danish parenting style.
For years, Denmark has ranked with other Scandinavian countries at the top of the list of the world’s happiest countries. Coinciding with this top honor in happiness is its recognition as the nation with the happiest children. Now, I could challenge the “happiest children” title, if for just a moment, bestowed when my daughter saw One Direction for three summers in a row. The Danes’ secret to happy children, though, runs much deeper than an evening at Soldier Field with a boy band. Author/Researcher Jessica Alexander and Danish psychotherapist Iben Sandahl explored why their children are so happy in “The Danish Way of Parenting: A Guide To Raising The Happiest Kids in the World.”
The Danes understand empathy, and it’s modeled by parents and society in all that they do. Dr. Stephen Bavolek, Ph.D., renown parenting education and child abuse prevention/treatment expert talks about empathy as the ability to be aware of the needs of others and to value those needs. From the very beginning, Danish children learn to care for others and they have a genuine desire to see others happy and successful. Danes recognize that with the right amount of guidance at the right time, children can be successful at completing tasks that they would have been otherwise unable to do.
Alexander and Sandahl discuss the importance of play in children’s life. That is, unplanned and unorganized play. They argue “…part of the point of free play is that children learn to regulate themselves. There is nothing to ‘achieve’ in play therefore a child’s inner drive can thrive.” It’s in this play that imaginations run wild. Vast research already points to the fact that a great deal of learning takes place outside the four walls of an indoor classroom.
In Danish homes, they don’t “baby proof” their stairways and cabinets as Americans do. Instead, their children are encouraged to be independent and adventurous.
My husband and I didn’t baby-proof our home, but we did have watchful eyes on our daughters to make sure they weren’t drinking glass cleaner or splashing in the toilet bowl.
Kristen Podulka wrote in a 2015 article for Time, “Danish people are fearless. And proud of it.” She explained that many Danish school yards have fire pits on the playground which are used to roast bread on sticks. Some classrooms have burning candles near the windows. When Podulka expressed concern to a teacher that children could reach the flames, the teacher asked, “Why would they touch fire? That would cause a burn.”
Interestingly, spanking is illegal in Denmark. Parents avoid problems rather than discipline for them, meaning that parents model and teach the behaviors they want their children to practice. Spanking teaches children that they did something wrong, but it doesn’t tell them what the desired behavior is (it typically gets lost in the pain or humiliation of the punishment.)
Danish families spend time together at dinner, talking, laughing and telling stories. They don’t bring cell phones and tablets to the table. While many of us may feel rushed at dinner while drafting in our heads a “To Do” list, Danish families enjoy this togetherness as the best time of the day. It’s not that Danes have more time in their day than the rest of us. They work, go school, have household chores and errands just like us. They simply prioritize their family time.
The Danes call this “hygge” (HOO-gah). An NPR story by Claire O’Neill from 2012 shared that a Lonely Planet guide to Copenhagen devoted a page to hygge: “Usually it is translated as “cosy” but hygge means much more than that. Hygge refers to a sense of friendly, warm companionship of a kind fostered when Danes gather together in groups of two or more, although you can actually hygge yourself if there is no one else around. The participants don’t even have to be friends (indeed, you might only just have met), but if the conversation flows — avoiding potentially divisive topics like politics and the best method to pickle herring…toasts are raised before an open fire (or at the very least, some candles), you are probably coming close.”
I plan to introduce hygge to my family. It will take some practice for me to stop writing the lists in my head at dinnertime, though, not discussing pickle herring shouldn’t be a problem.
Pamela Henderson is the director of development and communications at Dunebrook. To learn more about parenting and support programs at Dunebrook, call (800) 897-0007. Email Pam with parenting questions and comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.