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New Book Explains How Dutch Parents Raise the “Happiest Kids in the World”

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Image Source: Jennifer Hergenroeder (The Experiment)

In 2013, UNICEF released an eye-opening report ranking 29 developed countries in terms of how happy their kids are. Topping the list at #1 was The Netherlands, which outranked all other countries in the categories of material well-being, education, and behavior. (The United States, on the other hand? Our kids ranked a dismal 26 out of the 29 countries surveyed. Oof.) 

In other words, the Dutch raise some of the happiest kids on the planet, if UNICEF’s report is to be believed. And there are at least two moms living in The Netherlands who couldn’t agree more.

In fact, Rina Mae Acosta and Michele Hutchison — both transplants by way of marriage to Dutch men (Acosta is American, and Hutchison is British) — have recently published a book on the subject. Appropriately titled, The Happiest Kids In The World, the book chronicles each of their experiences raising kids in The Netherlands who, yes, just so happen to be pretty darn happy.

In it, Acosta and Hutchison both describe a world where kids spend their afternoons largely unsupervised, scaling trees, playing games, getting dirty (i.e., doing what kids do best). That is partly because young kids don’t have homework in The Netherlands, and are free to just be kids when they’re done with school.

Play is emphasized at school as well, and kids are encouraged to learn at their own pace . And even though reading and math are not stressed at early ages like they are in America, Dutch kids do exceptionally well academically, outranking every single other industrialized country in terms of educational success.

And Dutch kids aren’t the only ones living a pretty stress-free life — their parents do, too. Acosta and Hutchison say that the Dutch enjoy an amazing work/life balance, with neither parent generally working more than a 29-hour work week (what?!), and both parents having the option of a day off each week to be with their kids. Dads seem to be as involved and hands-on as mothers, and mothers have the choice as to whether they want to stay home or work. Many seem to choose part-time work, so that they feel fulfilled both in motherhood and in their career.

Are you already frantically looking up immigration information, and figuring out how soon you can get a plane ticket to The Netherlands to look at houses? Me too.

And as if all of this didn’t sound perfect enough, there’s actually more. (Yes, really.) I was particularly fascinated by how new moms are ushered into the postpartum period in The Netherlands. It’s all detailed in a chapter called “Mothering the Mother” (because that is basically what they do there).

The Dutch take the matter of easing women into motherhood very seriously, knowing that it can be a time of rocky emotions, anxiety, and stress.
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Are you sitting down for this? Good.

Basically, all new moms are offered an at-home maternity nurse for 8-10 days after the birth (or longer if necessary). This is regardless of income, and is “generously subsidized” by health insurance. Acosta says that the Dutch take the matter of easing women into motherhood very seriously, knowing that it can be a time of rocky emotions, anxiety, and stress. Maternity nurses are there to ease that transition, helping the moms with breastfeeding, housework, and baby care; but they’re also there to just be a good listening ear, and offer their years of motherhood advice (with a healthy side of humor).

Overall, the impression you’re left with after reading about Acosta and Hutchison’s varied experiences — in the realm of parenting, schooling, work/life balance, and more — is that Dutch families are just way less stressed than many of us Americans are. Acosta and Hutchison often compare their kids’ childhoods to their own, and realize how much more their childhoods were defined by a drive toward success and perfection, both of which created undue anxiety for everyone involved.

Speaking with Babble, Acosta seems to have few regrets in her decision to leave her San Francisco family over 5,000 miles away to give her kids a more carefree Dutch childhood. Though she does admit that what she misses most about America is its vibrant natural environment (The Netherlands can be dark and dreary most of the year).

“I hope that they can one day explore some of the gorgeous nature parks in the United States,” Acosta says. “We [Americans] are surrounded by so much beauty and diversity when it comes to our natural monuments.”

The most important messages I believe are to allow children to be children, to allow them to fall in love with learning and to give them the space to cultivate their innate curiosity …
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She may have a point there; but I have to say that both reading the book and chatting with Acosta made me kind of envious of the life she lives. (And I may have even shed a few tears when I realized just how stressful American life can be.) But being that I don’t have a tall and handsome Dutch husband to whisk me away anytime soon, I thought it would be useful to find out how an average American mom like me can bring some of the Dutch lifestyle into my home.

“The most important messages I believe are to allow children to be children, to allow them to fall in love with learning and to give them the space to cultivate their innate curiosity,” she shares, adding that it’s not just kids who need to slow down and get time to be themselves. Parents also need to be “a lot more kinder to ourselves,” she notes, and we need remember that “we’re doing the best we can do in any of our circumstances.”

Well, I think we can all get behind that sort of thinking. It would serve many of us well to take things at a much slower pace, and just generally adopt a parenting approach that emphasizes positive mental health rather than a need for achievement or perfection. That said, I know it can be hard to do these things when you’re working a job (or three), with little access to affordable childcare, limited time off, and schools that don’t exactly buy into the no homework idea.

Still, the spirit of Dutch living is something we can certainly all look to for inspiration. And in the meantime, perhaps we could all be a little kinder to ourselves, as Acosta reminds us. Yes, we may not have all the perks the Dutch have, but there might be some wisdom to being happy with what we’ve got, to not struggling or striving for something more, and to just trying to find more ways to let go and relax.

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