Dutch kids are a marvel: biking around the town, hanging onto the back of their parents’ bike, eating hagelslag like there’s no tomorrow. No wonder they’re among the happiest children in the world — but why is that? And what’s different in Dutch kids’ upbringing compared with how American kids are raised? 🇺🇸🇳🇱
I often wonder what it must be like to grow up in the Netherlands instead of in Atlanta, Georgia — a southern city known for sunshine, Coca-Cola, and being the home of CNN and Delta Air Lines. ☀
To grow up in a small, flat kingdom where chocolate sprinkles on bread is a normal breakfast and pancakes a suitable dinner. Where a child rides their bicycle daily from their house past playgrounds, ice cream shops, not to mention unlimited cows, sheep, and horses. 🐄
Don’t get me wrong, I had a great childhood, but living in another country definitely made me aware of some differences in how other countries raise their children.
Dutch children are remarkably happy in this quirky little country, scoring themselves as the happiest children in rich industrialised nations in numerous child well-being studies.
On the other hand, American children score among the lowest in most dimensions measured — stemming primarily from inequality and exceptionally high child poverty rate (with nearly a quarter of children in the US growing up under the federal poverty limit).
When I came to the Netherlands to study Social Policies and Social Interventions for my master’s degree, I had no idea how much subtle cultural differences played a role in national policies and how different childhood in the Netherlands was from my own American upbringing.
These are some of the biggest things I’ve noticed after living in the Netherlands for a few years:
1. Dutch kids know about “the birds and the bees”
I grew up going to a Catholic school in a really conservative state, where it is still illegal in most places to buy alcohol on Sundays.
Our idea of sex education consisted of instilling fear of incurable STDs, calling birth control unreliable, and having a man pass out white roses and pledge cards to make us promise that we’d “save ourselves for marriage.” 🙄
Conversely, the Dutch are known for their tolerance surrounding sexuality — they even appear to be somewhat proud of it. Many people know Amsterdam’s Red-Light District, the suggestive Dutch art, and the country’s commitment to sexual equality.
The Dutch approach is one of openness, practicality, and liberalism. Their belief is that sexuality is a natural part of life. They are practical about it and think that people will have sex anyway, so might as well create a safe, well-informed environment. Liberalism also ensures that people have the right to do what they want in their bedrooms.
Unlike a lot of American children, Dutch children receive subsidised comprehensive sex education teaching children about love, sex, and relationships.
The Dutch mentality towards sex education puts America to shame. Because Dutch people have an open attitude towards sexuality and contraception, the tiny country boasts some of the lowest rates of teen pregnancy, abortion, and STDs.
The US not only has a famously high teen pregnancy rate, but nearly HALF of all pregnancies in the US are unintended or unplanned — which can have severe negative effects for unprepared mothers and their child.
The debate over whether it is acceptable to require health insurance to cover birth control is still unsettled by the US Congress. In the Netherlands, however, openness about sexuality and the ease of availability of contraception helps Dutch people to plan their family life and have children when they feel ready. ☺
A book called “Not Under My Roof” by Amy Schalet discusses cultural differences towards teenage sex between Dutch and American families.
While Dutch parents may allow a teenager’s partner to spend the night and are realistic about the fact that they may have sex and are willing to give the couple contraception, the American approach is definitely a far cry from that.
To understand what I mean, it can be pretty much summed up by this country (obviously) song called “Cleaning this Gun”. It basically is an American dad saying if you’re interested in my daughter, I’ll be watching you with my gun. 🤡
2. Having babies in Holland
Nearly a quarter of Dutch women give birth at home under the supervision of a midwife. On top of assisting during the birth, Dutch midwives also provide prenatal care and advice for pregnant women. 🤰🏽
I was shocked the first time I heard that home-birth was still reasonably common in the Netherlands. However, the majority of people live within 15 minutes of a hospital, so at the slightest complication in the home birth, the hospital really is only minutes away.
After giving birth, either at home or in a hospital, women are entitled to maternity care (something which is apparently a luxury in the U.S.) In what may be a magical cross between the Fairy Godmother and Mary Poppins, a qualified maternity nurse provides kraamzorg (postnatal care) to women who give birth under Dutch healthcare system.
The maternity nurse helps new mothers to care for their newborns with advice, health checks, even assisting with household chores like laundry and making meals for other children. Wat leuk!
Meanwhile in the U.S., most women give birth in hospitals with medical doctors assisting their deliveries. And while the doctors may assist with some prenatal care and with the birth itself, post-natal care isn’t often a thing.
Also, the U.S. is one of the few countries in the world which don’t require employers to give mandatory paid maternity leave. 🙅🏼♀️
3. Playing instead of doing homework
Another difference between Dutch children and American children is the approach towards “playtime.” In the Netherlands, play is encouraged and considered an important part of childhood development.
This idea is evident based on the endless amounts of children’s playgrounds, petting zoos, and even kid-zones in stores! Not to mention, it’s normal to see Dutch kids playing outside whenever they can on their bikes, scooters, tricycles, rollerblades, etc. 🚲
Although mandatory schooling starts at the age of five, over 95% of Dutch four-year-olds attend early childhood education, and 63% of two-and-a-half to three-year-old children attend some sort of playgroup.
Through play, children learn how to react in situations, confrontations, and social settings. From the commonness of children’s playgroups to little amounts of homework, and dedicated children’s play zones, Dutch children are encouraged to spend time happily playing and socialising. 🙌
3. The laidback Dutch parenting style
After hours of playing, the Dutch parenting mantra of rust (rest), regelmaat (regularity), and reinheid (cleanliness) illustrate a significant difference in Dutch and American family life.
By adhering to the three R’s, Dutch parents create an environment of stability for children. Children need plenty of sleep, the structure of routine, and to keep clean to avoid harmful germs and diseases.
Rather than assuming that a child will sleep when he is tired or is unable to sleep through the night, the Dutch simply adhere to a regular bedtime: creating rhythm and comfort. 💤
This is dramatically different from American cultural norms that encourage consistent stimulation and arousal in children to promote cognitive development and achievement. Think “helicopter parents” who overschedule their children by making them do lots of extracurricular activities while also pressuring them to get high grades.
Conversely, Dutch parents are less likely to be concerned with their children’s doing well in school and far more with their overall happiness and well-being.
4. A bona fide welfare state for Dutch kids and families
Studying social policies in the Netherlands highlighted the Dutch commitment to families for me. In America, they tend to leave this subject to the private sector.
The Dutch government tries to reconcile demands of work-life and family responsibility. Policies like paid maternal and paternal leave to take care of their sick child and child benefit packages seem like some type of alternate universe compared to the U.S. that requires employers to none of the above.
The Netherlands is so concerned with policies for children that they also encourage the Child-Friendly Cities Network — where cities compete with local initiatives to promote the rights and interests of children. 👶
One example of their initiatives is reserving 3% of residential land for children’s playgrounds, sandboxes, etc.
The government also frequently engages with the Dutch National Youth Council, made up of over 30 children’s organizations that speak for children and stimulate youth participation in the making of local policy and planning.
If you don’t believe me yet about how different things are in the U.S., wait until you read this: the U.S. is the only other country, apart from Somalia, which hasn’t signed the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. 🙃
America is famously an outlier in social and family policies, with many considering family policies an unconstitutional governmental invasion of family privacy.
Despite all the positive effects of parental leave policies, after seeing the chaos of including birth control in Obamacare, debate on paid maternal leave in the United States (as it exists in other 163 countries) may give rise to the complete collapse of US Congress. 😓
I will obviously never know if I would have had an even happier childhood in the Netherlands. I would probably speak quieter in restaurants, not be phased by suggestive art around the city, and have a basic understanding of water technology from building sand dykes at the beach.
Not only that, but I would undoubtedly be a better cyclist, know more than just one language, and be totally accepting of French fries as a complete dinner option. But happier? Geen idee. 💁🏼♀️
Why do you think Dutch kids are so happy? Let us know in the comments below.
Feature Image: pikselstock/Depositphotos
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in November 2015 but was updated for your reading pleasure in October 2021.