In our constantly changing world, people need to know not only how to master riding the waves of change themselves but also how to prepare their children for future success. How can we teach our children how to cope with uncertainty and frequent shifts in our culture, economy, professional lives, and more?
Jessica Joelle Alexander and Iben Sandahl have written a fascinating book which dives into the culture of a particular country - Denmark - found to have the happiest people on earth by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) almost every year since 1973. The Danish Way of Parenting: What the Happiest People in the World Know about Raising Confident, Capable Kids provides insight into a parenting culture that is palpably distinct from what we see in North America these days, where helicopter parenting, over-scheduling, gold medals for participation, and anxiety in adults and children are rampant.
The authors use the word "PARENT" as an acronym to organize their core concepts:
The authors tell us that free play is crucial for learning resilience - it teaches children to deal with stress and to be less anxious. The ability to "bounce back" and regulate emotions is key to success in adulthood. Play helps develop things like socialization, autonomy, cohesion, democracy, and self-esteem, which the Danes believe develops a strong internal compass to guide people through life. Of note, it is "free play", not directed play, which builds these skills. As such, Danes try not to interfere unless absolutely necessary and opt rather to give space and trust for children to develop self-reliance and authentic self-esteem (as a result of mastery). The authors encourage play without electronics, with art, with groups of mixed ages, as well as alone.
Danes value humility and authenticity. They believe that we shouldn't only focus on the good but also discuss upsetting events and tragedies as this builds greater empathy for others and gratitude for the simple things in our lives. The authors state: "If we teach our children to recognize and accept their authentic feelings, good or bad, and act in a way that's consistent with their values, the challenges and rough patches in life won't topple them." As parents, this means that we also need to model emotional honesty; our kids see how we feel anger, joy, frustration, etc. and how we express our feelings to the world. Accepting feelings, rather than numbing and burying them, helps develop overall self-acceptance and life satisfaction. Nurturing humility, the authors say, means focusing praise on the task and effort, and not on the intrinsic value of the person. This encourages hard work and doesn't tie a child's self-esteem to the success of any particular project or outcome.
Reframing is a way of using language to create a perception shift; finding the silver lining in any situation. The authors state that being a master reframer is a cornerstone of resilience and that Danes are master reframers, or what psychologists call "realistic optimists". They do not fake happiness and they don't pretend that negative aspects don't exist but they choose to focus on the positive. They filter out unnecessary negative information. Focusing on less negative aspects helps reduce anxiety and increase well-being. For example, on a freezing cold day, a Dane may say something like "glad I'm not on holiday" rather than complaining about the weather. The authors encourage us to use reframing with our children to separate problems from the person, and to refrain from labelling children based on any particular challenges. It is also helpful when discussing our children's perceptions of people or events to help them focus on the positive.
Empathy connects us to other people and it is key for getting along in the world. Danes formally teach children in school how to recognize different emotions and they deliberately mix children of different ages and abilities together for their mutual benefit. Some tips provided by the authors for helping children develop empathy: notice and identify emotions, read a lot, be open.
N: No Ultimatums
Danes parent in a very democratic way. They establish rules and guidelines that children are expected to follow and allow for discussion about their expectations. They see children as intrinsically good and react in accordance with that belief. They take the position that they need to be respectful of their children in order to be respected by their children (note: not feared). As such, there is more emphasis placed on how to avoid problems than how to punish. Giving an ultimatum is the ultimate way to set up a power struggle and paint yourself into a corner; once uttered, an ultimatum must be followed through on or the parent risks losing credibility and this is what the Danes believe leads to unnecessary spanking and other physicality. The authors state that not one study in over two decades' worth of research has found any positive outcome of spanking. Instead, spanking has been associated with the following in children: depression, low self-esteem, lying, anxiety, and drug and alcohol use. In the face of challenges from our children, the authors suggest that we: breathe, remain calm, use humour, and offer a way out - calm begets calm.
T: Togetherness and "Hygge"
Pronounced "hooga", hygge means "to cozy around together" - what a great concept! It involves lighting candles, playing games, eating nice meals, having cake and tea, having fun and generally enjoying each other's company. Danes make it a priority to work together in team effort to create the environment of togetherness and to make this experience a priority in life. This is one of the ways that Danes stay connected to friends and family and is considered by many to be the true purpose of life. The benefit of the group is seen as a higher priority than any individual preference and this yields a spirit of teamwork and cooperation in many aspects of life.
The above concepts are the keys to Danish parenting which have yielded the happiest people on earth for several generations. Some of the ideas might seem like common sense while others might feel surprising. I encourage you to experiment with some of these concepts and see which ones can be implemented in your family life. You might see some astonishing changes over time in how your children relate to you and to their world!
Wishing you much cozy time with your family,