That their parents split the parental workload is just one of the reasons Dutch kids consistently top global well-being surveys. Here's what else the Dutch are doing right
Think of the Netherlands and you envision fields of tulips, chocolate-box houses, spinning windmills and scenic cycling routes. It's easy to insert a bunch of happy kids into this image. But, that Dutch kids consistently top global well-being surveys has to do with more than their physical environment and government policies (though those things do help -the Dutch government devotes a lot of attention to the well-being of children. For example, their `Child Friendly Cities Network' programme encourages cities to compete against each other to come up with initiatives that promote the rights and interests of children, such as, for instance, the reservation of three per cent of residential land for children's play areas). But, a lot of it has to do with parenting. So, what are the Dutch doing right? Rina Mae Acosta and Michele Hutchison, two mothers raising their kids in Amsterdam, share their observations in the soon-tobe-released book, The Happiest Kids in the World: How Dutch Parents Help Their Kids (and Themselves) by Doing Less. An article on Acosta's website, findingdutchland.com lists a few points. Consultant Psychiatrist Dr Pervin Dadachanji examines these in the context of Indian cultural mores.
“This is a no-brainer,“ says Dadachanji, “A happy home environment will make for a happy child. Children look to their parents for interactions which are secure, calm, and stable. That, in itself, inculcates a sense of security which obviously translates into happiness.“ But, the challenge is to be happy yourself. The way the Dutch do it: they work for 29 hours a week on average (but of course, this is supported by government policy), reserve one day a week to spend time with their children, and make time for themselves too. You may not be able to shorten your work day, but dedicating one day to your children (and another to yourself) every fortnight may be a possibility make that day count and use it for activities that allow for one-on-one interaction like a game of football or cricket, or a walk in the park.
Mothers have a good work-life balance and women have stronger voices, with complete freedom on matters of personal choice such as where it concerns their relationships, religion or sexuality.Post the launch of her book Dutch Women Don't Get Depressed, Ellen de Bruin, a Dutch psychologist, told The New York Times that another reason Dutch women are happier is that they don't really pander to trends or to societal demands. “We don't know how to dress and we are not very hospitable -if you come round to our house at dinnertime you get sent away,“ said de Bruin, pointing out that women pick their clothes to suit the weather rather than to flatter their figures.
Dadachanji believes the work-life balance is integral to happiness.“Indian women are more educated these days, and when you have these women who could have careers, solely focusing their attention on the kids and the home, it's bound to cause some discontent. Women feel robbed of their own identity and a sense of stability, as when you're not a bread winner, you don't really get your say on matters.“ Besides, says Dadachanji, “For girls, a mother who works is a great role model; for boys, this environment will teach them to view women differently, and pave the way for healthier relationships with their own partners when they grow up. When a boy sees his father suppressing his mother, that's what he will do.“ But, Dadachanji does allow for different power-equations.“The scales aren't always balanced in relationships, but what kids need to see is that their mother is respected.“
Down-time is important
“Dutch elementary students under the age of 10 usually do not have any homework, and are simply encouraged to enjoy learning. And, there is, for the most part, no formal competitive university application process,“ writes Acosta. In India, on the other hand, as Dadachanji, points out, “even if parents are relaxed, the school may be pressurising the child. In some cases, parents add to academic pressure by slotting in extra-curricular activities and insisting that a child excel at these too. Extra-curricular activities are great, but they should be about the child enjoying the game of tennis or chess etc. It shouldn't turn into a quest to get your child to compete at the National level, so that their participation in the activity looks good on university applications as that takes the fun out of it. What Indian parents must realise is that the curriculum won't change, but your attitude can.“
Break bread together
“If you have two kids in the Netherlands and one attends high school and the other a primary school, both of them would still leave for school at the same time, and work starts at the same time for grown-ups too -it's just how their society is structured. Here, it doesn't work that way, so it may be impractical to expect the whole family to gather at the table for breakfast, but making dinner a family meal may be more achievable. Aim to have any one meal with the family every day,“ says Dadachanji, pointing out that this is the time when views are exchanged. “You're actually socialising with each other when you dine together -you'd talk about how each person spent the day, perhaps plan which member of the family will use the car at what time the next day (some of the conversation will be transactional, but that's fine).When you watch TV together, this exchange does not take place.This way, parents get to know what is happening with the kids and vice-versa.“
Kids should be seen and heard too
Perhaps one of the most difficult changes that Indian parents would have to make to come around to the Dutch way is this: learn to respect a child's opinion and viewpoint. Dutch parents are strict too, and kids do know who's boss, but children are heard, and their views respected. “The kids are trusted with chores, and taught to be responsible from an early age,“ says Dadachanji, “and entrusting them with responsibility makes kids feel capable and confident. As their cities are safe, Dutch kids are given a lot of independence from a young age -they can ride around on bicycles and play outdoors unsupervised. Indian parents may not feel comfortable allowing their young children out without a nanny, but they can certainly allow their children to express themselves, instead of always telling them what they must do -parents must not adopt a `my word is the law; you cannot question me,' attitude. Allow your child to explain why he does or does not want to do something -in ten such conversations, surely you'll have had the occasion to concede the point at least once. Suppressing children will either turn them into rebels, or, when these children grow up, they won't have the confidence to make their own decisions.“
Growing up with grandparents
Dutch children spend a lot of time with their `omas' or grandmothers.“In our culture, we do this too,“ says Dadachanji, explaining that, “it's important for kids to learn to interact with another significantly important person in their lives. Not only will this help them develop social skills, it provides an additional outlet, someone they can discuss things with that they may not want to talk to their parents about. Besides, kids who interact with senior family members regularly learn to be more sensitive. As they grow older, the grandparent can also then serve as a go-between when there's a sharp disagreement between parent and child. The grandparent is not the primary disciplinarian, so he or she may be able to get through to the child easier. But, in India, the problem is maintaining boundaries.It's important for grandparents to stick to the house rules and never override a parent's authority.“
Dads need to step up
“Papa dag (Daddy day) has not only become part of the Dutch vocabulary, it's becoming more of a standard norm as one in three men are also opting for part-time work,“ says Acosta's article. This too is encouraged by government policy -in 1996, the Netherlands gave part-time employees the same status as full-time employees, with a view to creating a balanced worklife for citizens. That fathers play an equal role in child rearing helps on many levels. “Indian fathers are definitely more involved nowadays,“ says Dadachanji.“When a child is brought in to see me, I've noticed that, these days, both parents want to come and talk about issues, not just the mother, which used to be the case earlier; most fathers make it a point to attend the first session at the very least. Our society is still not at the stage where fathers will work parttime, but dads do need to understand that what they invest in terms of time, will improve their children's future. This also helps ease the burden on mothers, making them happier and contributing to a healthier home environment.“