Dutch kids are a marvel: biking around the town, hanging onto the back of their parent’s bike, eating hagelslag like there’s no tomorrow. No wonder they’re among the happiest children in the world. But why are they happier? 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 Holland instead of in Atlanta, Georgia – a Southern city known for sunshine, Coca Cola, and the home of CNN and Delta Airlines. 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 daily rides his bicycle from his 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 highlights differences- plus the Netherlands is known for having the happiest children in the world. Dutch children are remarkably happy in this quirky little country – scoring themselves as the happiest children in rich industrialized nations in numerous child well-being studies.
American children, however, 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 U.S. 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 must be from my own. These are some of the biggest things I’ve noticed after living in Holland for about two years.
I grew up going to a Catholic school in a Conservative state where it is still illegal most places to buy alcohol on Sundays. Sex education consisted of instilling fear of incurable STD’s and teen pregnancy, the unreliability of birth control, and ended with a speech on the importance of abstinence where a man passed out white roses and pledge cards promising you would save yourself for marriage.
The Dutch, on the other hand, are known for their tolerance about sexuality, even somewhat proud of it. Many people know the Red Light Districts, suggestive art, and the national commitment to sexual equality. The Dutch approach is one of openness, practicality, and liberalism. An openness that sexuality is a part of life, practicality that people will do it so it ought to be in a safe, well-informed environment, and liberalism that people have the right to do what they want in their bedrooms. Children receive subsidized comprehensive sex education teaching children about love, sex, and relationships.
Comparatively, the Netherlands puts America’s approach to teaching about safe sex to shame. Because the Dutch know where babies come from, have access to contraception if they want to have safe sex, and have an open dialogue about sex, the Netherlands has some of the lowest rates of teen pregnancy, abortion, and STD’s.
The U.S. not only has a famously high teen pregnancy rate, but nearly half of pregnancies in the U.S. are unintended or unplanned, which can have negatively effects for both the mother and baby who may not be ready for parenthood. The debate over whether it is acceptable to require health insurance to cover birth control is still unsettled by the U.S. 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 recent book, “Not Under My Roof” by Amy Schalet discusses cultural differences towards teenage sex between Dutch and American families. While Dutch parents may allow a teenagers boyfriend or girlfriend to sleepover and ensure access to birth control, the American approach to teenage sex might be more accurately summed up by Rodney Atkins “Cleaning this Gun”.
Having babies in Holland
Nearly a quarter of Dutch women give birth at home under the supervision of a midwife. 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, in a country where three hours will take you from border to border, 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. In what may be a magical cross between the Fairy Godmother and Mary Poppins, a qualified maternity nurse provides post-natal care (kraamzorg) to women who give birth in the Netherlands. Available to all women through the healthcare system, the nurse helps new mothers to care for their newborns with care, advice, health checks, even assisting with household chores like laundry and making meals for other children.
Playing instead of doing homework
There seem to be endless amounts of children’s playgrounds, petting zoos, and kid-zones in stores not to mention the variety of outdoor activities from bicycles, tricycles, rollerblades, and soccer balls to rafts, sleds, and ice-skates that seem to be commonplace in Dutch childhoods.
Although mandatory schooling starts at the age of five, over 95% of Dutch four-year-olds attend early childhood education, and 63% of two ½ 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 socializing.
After hours of playing, the Dutch parenting mantra of rust, regelmaat, and reinheid (translating to rest, regularity, and cleanliness) illustrates 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 promoting cognitive development, magnified in recent discussions about “helicopter parents” or “tiger moms” who overschedule their children in extracurricular activities, place enormous pressure on winning, competition, and educational achievements. Conversely, Dutch parents are less likely to be concerned with their child’s doing well in school and far more with their overall happiness and well-being.
A bona fide welfare state for Dutch kids and families
Studying social policies in the Netherlands highlighted the Dutch commitment to families, an area American policies tend to leave to the private sector. The Dutch government devotes significant policy attention to children’s and families, trying to reconcile demands of work-life and family responsibility. Policies like paid maternal leave, paid paternal leave, leave if one’s child is sick, and child benefit packages seem like some type of alternate universe compared to the United States that requires employers to none of the above.
The Dutch government also encourages the Child-Friendly Cities Network where cities compete with local initiatives to promote the rights and interests of children, like reserving 3% of residential land for children’s playgrounds, sandboxes, etc. The government also frequently engages with the 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.
The United States, on the other hand, is the only country other than Somalia that hasn’t signed the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, which promotes family and child-friendly policies. The United States 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 the U.S. 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 or late-night ads on television, and have a basic understanding of water technology from building sand dykes at the beach. I would undoubtedly be a better bicyclist and ice skater, accept French fries as a complete dinner option and be able to speak more than my native language. But happier? Geen idee.
Why do you think Dutch kids are so happy? Let us know in the comments below.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on 15 November 2015 but was updated for your reading pleasure on 22 April 2020.
Feature image: scottwebb/Pixabay