Op Camp – How Dutch Secondary School Kids Learn Grit

16 September 2017


(Photo by Alaric Hartsock )

In The Happiest Kids in the World, we wrote about how Dutch children toughen up by cycling to school and playing sports in all weathers. Things are taken to the next level at secondary school as I recently found out.

The tradition of going away on school camp starts as early as six or seven at primary school. By the time they are teenagers, Dutch children are well used to spending time away from their parents. And not only from their parents, they also have to leave their telephones and all electronic devices home too. Camps are an important step in growing in self-confidence and independence and bonding with classmates in a low-key environment.

I didn’t see the episode of Modern Family in which the mother dumps her oldest child without money or telephone leaving her to find her own way home so she has something to write about on her college application until after Rina had written about it in our book, but I’ve caught up on it since. The daughter gets home alright, but boy she’s mad at her mum. The Dutch have a similar tradition, hilariously called a dropping. (I once had to edit a text written by a Dutch person who’d simply called these ‘droppings’ in English. ) Ben’s third-year camp started with a ‘dropping’.

Having packed a big rucksack with camping gear, Ben set off for school on his bike on Monday morning. The children were taken by coach down to South Limburg, split into groups of four or five and randomly dropped at places in the countryside. They had maps, a compass and one emergency phone in a sealed envelope per group. They were to make their own way to a campsite.

 

Meanwhile, storms were raging all across the country and would continue to rage for the days to come. I spent the time feeling terribly sorry for my son who would be drenched I was sure. I also wondered whether their tents would actually be swept or washed away and how they would deal with that. I wasn’t particularly worried that he wouldn’t cope since at thirteen Ben is strong, hardy and independent. A typical Dutch teenager, as I pride myself.

He duly arrived back on his bike on Wednesday in the late afternoon wearing the same clothes he’d set off in. What was it like? I asked. ‘Oh fun, and also not,’ he said wryly. None of the kids had been very good at putting up the tents and every night they’d all blown down. They hadn’t been able to get them back up in the dark and had simply slept in the collapsed tents. I couldn’t help but laugh at the image this brought to mind. His group had arrived at the campsite within a couple of hours, but other groups hadn’t got there until much later. And they’d also got lost again the next day on a mountain biking ride. At one point, they’d stood waiting for help and a group of teachers had driven past them waving cheerily. They hadn’t been able to get them to stop. Teenagers can look after themselves, if only you give them the chance.

‘Oh, Mum,’ Ben said then. ‘I was the only one not to be taken to school and collected in the car, with all this heavy stuff, you know.’

‘Oops,’ I said. ‘Sometimes it’s hard to know just how Dutch I should be.’

 

Dutch Parenting in New York

3 July 2017

Manon and her Dutch-American children

One question people often ask is how easy is it to put Dutch parenting into practice in other countries. Obviously, a lot of things are dependent on the environment in which you live. A common remark is that without a safe cycling network it’s not going to be very easy to let your kids cycle to school. Other environmental factors such as medical care, schooling, and social services also play into local parenting cultures. However, some of what Rina and I wrote about in The Happiest Kids in the World is absolutely transportable. Simple pleasures, like eating chocolate sprinkles for one, or more seriously, encouraging outdoor play, teaching independence, and easing off on the pressure to excel.

During a lively crowd discussion on this subject at our book launch in New York this spring, an attractive middle-aged woman stood up and said that she was a Dutch mother who had raised her two children in Manhattan in the Dutch way. Only after reading our book did her children, now 18 and 24, realize where she’d been coming from all this time. It was a eureka moment for them. They now knew why her priorities had been fostering independence and a sense of responsibility and why she’d seemed so laid back about some things. The Dutch woman went on to say it had been a eureka moment for her too, ‘after not even realizing where it all came from!’

Last week, Manon Chevallerau was in Amsterdam for her mother’s 90th birthday so I gladly met up with her to discuss how she’d coped with the social pressure to do things the American way and stuck to her Dutch roots. ‘It wasn’t hard, not even as a single mother, which makes it all the more of a challenge to trust your own instincts,’ she told me. ‘I just stood up for what I believed in. I did what was natural to me, following the way I’d been brought up. I didn’t really think twice about it.’ As she was saying this, I realized what an incredibly strong woman she is and how she reminds me of so many other Dutch women I know.

Dutch women have a magic mixture of self-confidence, a can-do attitude, and a hard shell that allows them not to be swayed by what others think or want them to do. It was this, more than anything else, that allowed Manon to go against the tide. British and American women seem less confident as moms. We are more conscious of how we parent and worried that others will judge us. This fits with Manon’s perception of American women, too, though it took her some time to realize it. ‘They might be less in tune with their maternal instincts because of all the social pressures,’ she offered.

 

Manon’s Downtown mother support group in 2004

Not just a Dutch-style parent, Manon has also imported kraamzorg – post-partum care – to New York and offers her services to new parents as a doula. After her daughter’s birth in 1999, she started working to assist new parents, taking care of the tired mom, helping parents set up their house and teaching them all the basics. There was a massive uptake after the post 9/11 baby boom. Although it’s a long way from free state-provided care, just putting the concept into practice can show people how valuable kraamzorg can be and start them off thinking about the need for it. ‘Being Dutch gave me the ability to bring a personal touch into my services, with guiding during breastfeeding, baby care and understanding the babies personality and cues so that new parents are able to tune into that instinct and learn to trust it and build confidence. In addition, I led the very first Downtown NYC mother and father support groups and hosted Work / Life Corporate Seminars for pregnant and new working parents,’ she said.

After living here for 13 years, I have come to value Dutch directness and a common sense approach to parenting. Manon agrees it’s a good thing, and what’s more, Dutch women are powerful. They don’t let anyone else tell them how to be. Basically, Dutch women kick ass.

An Interview with an English Dad Blogger

2 June 2017

Last week Jamie interviewed Rina and me about Dutch dads for his own blog. I thought it would be nice to ask him a few questions back about what it’s like raising his kids in the UK right now. It was also great to get to chat to another fellow blogger and parent.

Let’s first introduce you to our readers…

I’m Jamie Day and I write an award-winning (no, really) dad blog called A Day In The Life Dad. I’ve been blogging since August 2015… so coming up to two years. I’m dad/climbing frame/ponytail fixer/train track builder to Edie and Arlo.

I’m also the new Editor of dad blogzine Father Inc and I contribute monthly pieces to other magazines and websites.

Jamie, what got you into blogging? What’s your main line of work (or daily activity)?

I love writing and I love my children; put the two together and you’ve basically got a dad blog… My wife, Georgia was the one who actually encouraged me to start. She’d seen so many mums doing well online but noticed a distinct lack of decent dad writers, so she bullied me into giving it a go. God damn her!

What’s it like raising kids in the UK for you? Did you agree with some of the experiences my English friends described in the book? 

Things are getting better for us dads. In most places, men can now share paternity leave and there are a lot more opportunities to work from home. That said, often when I’m out with my children I find I’m the only dad there. Where are all the other dads? Hopefully not chained to their desk.

What are the main challenges English parents face, in your opinion? Did you move to the countryside to get away from some of them?

Life with kids in the UK seems to go at 100mph. Aside from day to day family life, there’s this scary social pressure of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ or perhaps that should now be ‘Keeping up with the Kardashians’ given this pressure has emerged from social media. This competitiveness is seemingly ingrained into our British consciousness and it’s starting to get out of hand. Our children must go to a certain school, they must have expensive toys and they must wear monochrome! There’s so much pressure on parents and children, we often forget the fundamental basics of just living and enjoying life with our children. We moved out of London to the countryside for some space, more time together and just to slow down a bit.

How much freedom can you allow your kids and how much freedom do you want to allow them?

When my children are a bit older, I’d love nothing more than to allow them to disappear for the day on their bikes, like the Dutch do, so they can enjoy some freedom. My childhood was like that but sadly those days seem like a long time ago. Nowadays parents fear what might happen and unfortunately, I don’t think we’ll see a return of such independence. So in reality, I’ll try and give them as much freedom as possible, but will always have one eye on what they’re up to.

How old are your kids now and how do you and your partner share the home workload?

My daughter Edie is 4 and my son Arlo is 1. My wife Georgia works in London and doesn’t get home until late, so I have the kids morning and night, and then the weekends are spent together trying to slow down a little.

Are attitudes to hands-on dads changing much?

I don’t have to go far with the kids before I hear “you’re on daddy duty are you?” or “you’re babysitting the kids are you?” Er, no actually. It’s called parenting. Slowly attitudes are changing, but there’s a long way to go before hands-on dads are seen as the norm.

What about gender reinforcement? I see more back home than here.

My son likes to play with diggers as much as he likes to play with garishly pink dolls, and my daughter likes sword fights as much as she likes swinging from a tree. I just want them to be happy and I don’t waste my time on narrow-minded people who can’t appreciate that.

What is your next parenting goal?

Aside from getting Edie to stop waking me up at 4am? There are lots of small things, like teaching Edie to swim without arm bands and Arlo needs to start playing football soon if he’s ever going to get signed up by Real Madrid, but more importantly, I just want them to continue being happy, carefree, innocent children. In a world riddled with problems, children like them are the future.

How could British parents adopt a more Dutch parenting approach?

We should just simplify family life and enjoy spending time together. I for one am guilty of over-thinking family time and planning extravagant and expensive outings, that whilst lovely, aren’t always necessary. Time just spent simply enjoying each other’s company could be even more fun and importantly, rewarding for the children.
Follow Jamie here:
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And fellow mum or dad bloggers from around the world – we’d love to exchange thoughts and experiences with you too, so do write in.

My Dutch Life: Netherlands vs South Africa

21 April 2017
Maya

I recently spent a week in Cape Town, South Africa where enthusiasm for The Happiest Kids in the World was overwhelming. I was interviewed for various magazines and given a lot of air-time on the radio. Rina gave some interviews too, by remote. The journalists and parents I spoke to all admitted to being overwhelmed by the current parenting culture. The country is still divided with a massive gap between rich and poor. Affluent parents tend to be overprotective due to the climate of fear, schools are apparently strict and old-fashioned in their teaching methods, and children have very little freedom as a result. Parents from poorer communities struggle with social inequality and cling on to the idea that tough discipline will prepare their children for the real world.

I interviewed Karmen van Rensburg, a South African designer married to a Dutchman about her life as a mother there.
Karm and Maya


First tell me a bit about yourself and how you grew up. What kind of school did you go to? Were your parents strict? Could you roam freely, play outside etc?

I was born in Port Elizabeth, a seaside town in the Eastern cape. We had a large house, garden and a pool – like most middle class people in the area. Both my parents worked full time, so I was looked after by a black woman called Nellie, who lived with us and whom I adored. I went to an English creche (we are Afrikaans speaking) and I remember that being alienating. I completed grade one in an Afrikaans goverment school called (horror): Hendrik Verwoerd. The architect of Apartheid. My parents were very liberal, but that was the system we grew up in.

When I was 7 we moved to a small town in Zululand, Empangeni. There I attended 2 different government schools (we moved house) and I liked the second one. It was special in that the teachers focused more on individual and cultural development than the average government school. They even had optional extramural classes about Archaeology in grade 3! I was neither sporty nor competitive so I flourished here. We had a huge unkept tropical double garden with countless fruit trees, strange lizards, chickens, rabbits and a dog. We ‘roamed free’ in our garden and at friends’ houses. My parents were not strict but politically it was a very tense and violent time in the country, especially in Zululand where we lived, and my mother, a journalist, was extremely anxious.

When I was 9 we moved to Johannesburg, where I stayed until I completed high school.  I passionately hated both my Afrikaans mainstream primary and high-schools. High school was huge, with ugly uncomfortable uniforms, sports-obsessed, competitive, strict, racist and extremely conservative. It was definitely no place for non-conformists or even individuals. Life besides school was good though – we lived in suburbia and played and cycled in the streets there, although not completely carefree – always aware of possible danger – in Johannesburg crime was picking up rapidly.

My marks were good, and in high school I rebelled by bunking school as often as possible. I got away with it mostly – we lived close to the school and I (often with a brave friend) would just return home after my parents went to work. We would take the bus to Hillbrow for the day, or hang out in the park. In my last school year, I was absent almost as many days as being present. A record I was proud of. The teachers turned a blind eye or gave up on me, didn’t care. My parents were largely unaware.

What a waste of an education! The irony is I loved to read, and learn. But the way lessons were presented by mostly unenthusiastic, frustrated teachers and the way we were treated and the pressure of conforming brought out the worst in my teenage self.


Your daughter was born in the Netherlands so you had some experience of child-raising there and now you’re back in South Africa with her. What are some of the cultural differences?

In Amsterdam where I lived, motherhood is percieved as an adventure to be enjoyed, the moms I knew where relaxed, took it in their stride. It helped tremendously to be able to work part-time – as an art director it’s unheard of in SA. Family-life in Netherlands seems to be valued by society and the workforce – even fathers get to spend time with their children. An ideal society to raise a child.

Sadly, in South Africa, work-life is much more intense, faster, more cut throat as there’s more at stake (there are no social grants, the unemployement rate is 27%). The economy and politics are volatile. Crime is rife. Having a baby is more of a handicap, a spanner in the works.

For the middle class, there is rarely ouma / oupa days, (IF they live close by, they’re often still working). ATV days don’t exist and both parents mostly work full time. The child goes to daycare 5 days a week, or stays at home with a nanny. In the townships and poorer communities, they stay with the unemployed family member or grandparent. It must seem really bizarre that I chose to return!


What are the main challenges of raising children in South Africa?

For a start, earning enough money for school fees. The quality of the education system has declined rapidly. Private schools are expensive and often elitist. Crime & safety is a real issue. There’s definitely no ‘roaming the streets’ anymore. Rape statistics are among the higest in the world. Here we either live on the edge, or if you’re wealthy, in a bubble.

Teaching your child about justice in a corrupt and very unjust society is a huge personal challenge.


The schools seem really strict from what your daughter told me. Why is that? Do you see any benefits?

I suppose it’s the only way that they know to try and create discipline.Teachers are underpaid and stretched thin. Many of the rules are just petty though and make no sense to me at all. I can see the benefits of wearing uniforms in an unequal society, although I don’t see why they need to be so formal and uncomfortable.
We have enrolled her in a lovely Montessori school on a farm and are on the waiting list.

The school she’s in now is in an affluent area, and I think some wealthy children probably benefit indirectly from the standardisation and strict rules, to keep them from becoming too entitled…

 

karm and alf

My Dutch Life – A Dutch Girl in London

10 April 2017

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Since the publication of The Happiest Kids in the World, we’ve received mail from adult readers but this was the first time we’d heard from a very young reader. Catharina is twelve years old and moved with her parents to London. She wrote: “when I was reading your book I unconsciously thought of some other things that I have noticed in the cultural difference between the Dutch and the English.” We’re delighted she has given up permission to share them with the readers of our blog.

 On British overprotectiveness:

“At my Primary School, they were very overprotective. We weren’t allowed to throw snowballs, because there might be small pebbles in the snow. As a family, we found this ridiculous. What was the chance that there were pebbles there, and even if there were, the worst thing that could happen was a small bruise. We also weren’t allowed to run on wet tarmac, and there were lots of other silly rules.
In your book, you also talk about children playing outside unsupervised. Near where we live there are two small playgrounds and from when I was roughly 8 I was allowed to take my 6 and4 year old sisters out to those playgrounds and we would get quite a lot of funny looks from adults.
Another thing I would like to point out is social media. On a whatsapp group chat, I made a joke, and one of the mothers of a boy I was in the group chat with made him leave it because of that joke. This is another example of overprotectiveness.”

 Dutch children are much more confident:

“Another thing that I noticed in England is that all the younger children (4,5, 6 and 7) are incredibly shy. You have to be very good with kids to be able to talk to them. That was why my youngest sister stands out, not only in height, but in the fact that she says her opinion loud and proud. I, on the other hand, am very different. I started out with saying my opinion, but noticed that it got me a lot of funny looks and my classmates saying, “You don’t have to be rude”. I used to hate that phrase so much. I became very shy until I had an amazing Year 6 teacher who brought me out of my shell. I started to speak my true opinion again. Even now, I often get funny looks from some of my friends when I say something that is supposedly too outspoken and every time I feel a rush of doubt. My point is that English children are always told not to say their true opinion (example: I get a really ugly new hairstyle. English: Darling! That looks… interesting… Dutch: Sorry to tell you this, but it looks REALLY ugly.) and I believe this leads to uncertainty later on in life.”

 On “stranger danger”:

“I have noticed that in England, there is a lot of hovering over children. For example, in the winter, I had a school musical and the rehearsals would end at 4:30pm. By then it would be dark, but I was all right with that. However, I saw lots of children on the phone with their parents almost the entire way home. I also walked home with one of my friends every time because she had to walk home with at least three friends, which was understandable, but, I thought: they’re in secondary school now and they should be given more freedom. Maybe it also has something to do with not having many mixed secondaries and if they are mixed they are often regarded as “bad” schools.”


School dinners:
“Also, the school dinners were disgusting and very unhealthy – they added far too much salt. We also had to eat everything on our plate, otherwise we would get a firm scolding by a scary dinner lady, who would even yell at five-year-olds on their first day in Year 1.”

 On discipline:

“At my primary school, when the bell went, we were all expected to stay still, whilst the supervisor (there were usually about 4-5 in each playground) said which class could walk to their lines first. There would also be a line order. In my secondary school, we don’t have to wear a uniform, but we all have to wear an ID badge, even the teachers and lunch time supervisors. A different colour per year. You also have a photo of yourself taken in Year Seven, which is bound to be embarrassing, which is why everyone turns their photo around.”

 On British competitiveness:

“Another point I would like to make is that if you do an extra-curricular club in England, it nearly always builds up to a concert or competition. None of the clubs I go to are without a goal. This is in one way nice, but in the other a lot less, since you enjoy it less. That said, I play the flute and in my borough there is an absolutely amazing organisation which allows music lessons, camps and exams. I will miss it when we move back to Holland.
In England you are pushed a lot more- like you say in your book, average isn’t good enough and at school they ALWAYS give you a way to improve. In Holland, I don’t know if that is the case. This might have something to do with English secondary schools not being streamed so you have all the students together.”


We’d love to hear from more children around the world so write to us via the Contact link!

The Big School Circus: Choosing a High School in Amsterdam

21 February 2017

This year I finally got why the Dutch are so fond of the word keuzestress: the stress of choosing, the stress of having too many choices. Mostly it’s used in reference to young adults in their twenties and thirties trying to figure out what they want from life. The other thing is, you don’t have keuzestress without options. But sometimes children are presented with options too: if you live in Amsterdam and are in your last year of primary school, there is a wealth of secondaries you could attend.

Here children choose which high school they want to go to, rather than parents. Children can attend any school offering the specific type of education recommended to them; there aren’t catchment areas. Over a period of three weeks, all of the schools open their doors on various weekday evenings and Saturdays and put on a beauty pageant for the kids. There are trial lessons, information sessions, lab tours, musical performances and you get a bag with information about the school and a gift when you leave. My daughter now has keyrings, a Dopper water bottle and earbuds stamped with the names of different schools. We also have piles and piles of brochures and papers. She was impressed with the Dopper.

Given that some schools are more popular than others, children must compile a ranked list of their preferences. Places are assigned by a lottery per category rather than by merit, with 95% of children getting into one of the top three on their list. The fact the other 5% end up lower on their list means it is advisable to hand in a long list of schools, say ten to twelve. Now here’s the rub – all of the schools are different and have their own identity. Choosing a school is not about comparing like with like.

My daughter has a VWO recommendation (pre-university entrance). In Amsterdam, there are five categorical gymnasiums – schools offering only a ‘gymnasium’ qualification – VWO plus Latin/Greek, which she could go to. But there are also lyceums – schools offering VWO (with or without classics) and HAVO, the next level down. HAVO prepares you for a more practical college education afterward, say business studies or applied psychology. There are also schoolgemeenschappen – comprehensive schools offering all three levels of study. VMBO prepares pupils for vocational training afterward. She could attend any of these school types and take her VWO exams in six years’ time.

We visited six schools last year and ten this year before Ina came up with her list. Joining her on her visits, I was amazed by the amount of innovation going on in Amsterdam. The new IJburg 2 College (comprehensive) had both horizontal and vertical clusters (same level and different levels together) and project-based learning rather than separate subjects. The building was architecturally interesting with open plan class setups – with good sound insulation, a teacher assured us. At present, it is in the middle of a building site on Zeeburger island. For Ina, it would mean a long cycle over the windy Schellingwoude bridge, but she deemed this preferable to navigating the busy city center traffic if she were to go to the Amsterdams Lyceum for example.

 

Just three hundred meters from our house, a new branch of the SVPO (School voor Persoonlijk Onderwijs) will open after the summer holidays. Its timetable is unusual in itself – school just four days a week from 9 to 5. Homework is done at school with the teachers, and class sizes are just 16 kids. It’s not a private school. None of these are. Smaller class sizes are achieved by only having eight teachers, a head and a concierge, no other support staff. Tests are done online to cut out on marking, so the teachers only work four days 9-5 too. Lessons last 85 minutes, and there’s a sports day once a month.

At Het 4e Gymnasium, the school my son attends, lessons last 50 minutes and the timetable is a five day a week/ 7,5 hours a day. While my daughter was mainly interested in schools with a strong science and maths profile, preferably with technology and IT options, she was wowed by the award-winning architecture of the 4e’s new building in Amsterdam-West. With its own in-house cinema, film editing suite and excellent drama facilities, she suddenly decided she’d be equally happy studying drama as IT. For the more scientifically-minded, the school is also unique in offering Astronomy lessons.

Two schools in Amsterdam offer the new ‘technasium’ diploma – a VWO with technology & design, which my daughter was really interested in. Metis Montessori has both technasium and a ‘coder’ class for children who want to learn programming as an additional subject from day one. Damstede, around the corner from us, a lyceum with a reputation of being solid but not inspiring in terms of extras, is building a new location for a technasium and a sports HAVO. That also went on the list.

Then there was Cygnus Gymnasium, also in a modern(ist) building – this one textured gray concrete. It has excellent results, friendly teachers and kids and good science facilities. They also teach ‘living Latin’ believing speaking it makes it easy to learn, and use the AIM method of teaching French in French with hand gestures.  Hyperion Lyceum in Noord has ‘atheneum plus’, a VWO diploma with extra science subjects such as IT and robotics. Offering both gymnasium and athenaeum diplomas, it is the most oversubscribed VWO school in Amsterdam, unfortunately, with just over half of those who apply getting a place.

Cartesius Lyceum won Ina’s heart with its climbing wall, a down-to-earth mix of kids from different backgrounds, nice teachers, a good location, one-hour lessons and computer science. At the very reputable Barlaeus Gymnasium, she took part in a classroom debate about whether meritocracy should be used in assigning schools rather than a lottery. Shouldn’t the children with the highest grades get first dibs? There were good arguments for and against but Ina still felt the Dutch system was better.

All in all, it has been an absolutely exhausting three-weeks with myriad impressions and the feeling we have only just scratched the surface. I’ve noted down the aspects Ina herself found important in her choice of school:

  • Distance & safe cycling route
  • Architecture: light, space, classrooms, the auditorium, the stairs, shared spaces
  • Subjects offered beyond the basic VWO package
  • Structure of the school day and learning support (e.g., homework class, mentors)
  • The gym: size, atmosphere, and equipment

It was very difficult to choose from such diverse options but in the end Ina went with her gut instinct and put the Hyperion Lyceum at #1. Given its popularity, the rest of the list became more important than it might have been otherwise. But she told me to stop stressing: “Mummy, I liked all the schools I visited so it will be fine!” Keuzestress can be a luxury problem indeed.

How Italians Raise their Kids: An Italian Education by Tim Parks

16 February 2017

italian-parenting-1

I’ve been spending more time in Utrecht recently. Last time I was at the station, I was lured into the glass-fronted ‘Boekspot’ in the Hoog Catharijne mall. The boekspot is a free library swap-shop where visitors are welcome to pick up a book and leave behind ones they’ve finished. I found myself face to face with a book I’d intended to read years ago and had never got around to – An Italian Education by Tim Parks. It hopped into my bag.

While you might think Pamela Druckerman and Amy Chua invented the foreign-parenting memoir, you’d be wrong. Parks got there earlier, in 1996 to be exact. An Italian Education describes the way Italian families live and how they bring up their children, from the perspective of an English translator-writer married to a local and raising three kids. I found it interesting, enlightening and constantly entertaining. I’m also rather glad I read it after Rina and I had written our book, The Happiest Kids in the World. It sets the bar high, certainly in literary terms.  

Early in the book, Parks broaches an issue I struggled with myself when attempting to describe Dutch character: ‘I have always been suspicious of travel writing, of attempts to establish that elusive element which might or might not be national character, to say in sweeping and general terms, this place is like this, that place is like that.’  And yet he comes to realize that places are different: ‘Once one has discounted individual traits, class attitudes, generation gaps, and of course the myriad manifestations of different personalities, still a substrate of national character does exist. The French are French somehow, the German are predictably German, the Italians, as I was slowly discovering, indisputably Italian.’ Parks decides to describe only what he knows intimately, his surroundings and his own experiences.

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So how do the Italians bring up their children? Well, with ‘immense caution, inhibition and a suffocating awareness of everything, but everything, that can go wrong.’ Woe betide they catch a chill after a dip in the sea. Although protected and confined, children can be spoiled rotten and bribed without guilt. Babies are public property – everyone fusses over them. And nobody minds their own business in an Italian family with everyone arguing around a noisy dinner table. Naturally, Italians are food-obsessed: ‘spoon-feeding their children years after the English have stopped, just to make sure they have enough of everything. It’s almost the only issue over which they seem willing to stoop to physical coercion.’

A few more choice details: there is no word for ‘bedtime’ in Italian since children don’t have them. Parks bucks the trend by sending his to bed by 7pm, British style. Houses are to be kept pristine so playing is discouraged. Play in itself is tricky too. There aren’t many playgrounds and parks (or at least not in Park’s region) and schools don’t have playing fields. If kids want to play football, they have to join a local club. Dads are not considered trustworthy enough to look after children. There’s even a lullaby in which children sing their fathers to sleep rather than the other way round. Suffering from a desperate lack of sleep at the time of writing, the author describes this all with utter hilarity.

Italy’s cult of la mamma is probably its most famous parenting cliché. ‘But beyond diet and swaddling and coddling and funding, Mamma has something else to offer: a suffused eroticism.’ Parks mentions a grown man who still shares a bed with his! The obsession with mammas means that dads don’t need to feel guilty about time spent away from the home. Childcare is not their responsibility. ‘The whole mythology of Italian bourgeois life,’ the writer describes, ‘is the small-time artisan slaving (but creatively, in his own workshop) for the sake of his wife and children.’ Gender conditioning is rife. Little girls must stay safely in the shallows while boys are allowed to dive from the rocks. There is more, much more, in this book but I’m not going to summarize it all.

The funniest thing is his conclusion: children in Italy never grow up and become independent. Their parents continue to support them long after they have reached adulthood, subsidizing their rent and even looking after their children, so that now the situation has become absurd. ‘One only fears that if they (my generation) have to look after their grandchildren, they won’t be equipped for it, having had so little experience.’ And the book ends with an encore of the joke – no better place to grow up than Italy? No, no better place NOT to grow up.italian-parenting-3

Gezelligheid vs Hygge

9 January 2017

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Hygge is being pitched as one of the reasons Danish adults are the happiest in the world. My first thought is that hygge is a brilliant marketing concept plus an appealing interior decorating trend. To me, hygge suggests wrapping up warm inside while it is snowing outdoors, lovely chunky knits, candles, log fires, pork roast, mulled wine and gingerbread, hearts and fairy lights. What’s not to like? It’s kind of Christmas but without the stress. On the other hand, when I read descriptions of it suggesting it’s not just about being warm and cozy but also about togetherness, I’m strangely reminded of that supposedly uniquely Dutch concept of gezelligheid.
Mind you, gezelligheid can’t really compete on the design front – you’re more likely to see anoraks and waterproof trousers since we get more rain than snow. And though Dutch people like blankets, they’re rather fond on the fleece kind. To make matters worse, they are still wearing onesies long after that trend was declared as dead as old Marley. My kids bought new ones again at Christmas. Incidentally, yesterday I came across an article by a Dutch journalist who moved to Denmark. She struggled to fit in at first, before realizing she dressed more scruffily, with stains on her clothes and mismatching accessories. The Danes are described as neat and tidy, law-abiding, and more formal. They didn’t get her silly jokes or her Dutch bluntness.

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Anyway, let’s look at the attributes of gezelligheid. In Holland it takes place in ‘brown cafés’ where you drink beer or genever or at home with a borrel with bitterballen and croquettes, or while skating together on natural ice. Gezelligheid is claiming a section of the park by stringing bunting in the trees and having a barbecue or picnic on a rug, or stopping at market stalls selling oliebollen. A bustling street market is always gezellig. Gezellig shouldn’t be expensive or pretentious. It should be accessible to all. It’s a biscuit tin on the table and a mug of coffee. It’s a spontaneous ‘koek –en-zopie’ stall selling warming refreshments for after your ice-skate. It’s hot chocolate or pea soup and the sound of lively chatter. It’s hygge but without the fairy magic.

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My uncle married a Danish woman so I grew up with a half-Danish cousin, Lotte. She tells me hygge definitely existed in Denmark when she was young. ‘You would have a hygge evening on your own or hygge with friends – an enjoyable cosy get-together. It’s not a new invention, though I’m a bit surprised it’s suddenly everywhere (Maybe all the Nordic dramas!)’

In his beautifully-produced and well-written The Little Book of Hygge – The Danish Way to Live Well, Meik Wiking writes that the word hygge originates from a Norwegian word meaning ‘well-being’ (in comparison, gezelligheid originates from the word for ‘companionship’). In fact, he even goes on to discuss the similarity between the two concepts before concluding that the Dutch variant is more sociable, while the Danish one is more insular. He writes that as a researcher at the Institute for Happiness, being with other people is perhaps the most important ingredient to happiness, so I’ll take that as a bonus point for gezelligheid.
The dark side of hygge is that since it is close-knit and home-focused, it’s apparently hard to break into Danish society as an outsider. But there’s plenty of positives too. It’s appealing to introverts, and simplicity and modesty are central tenets. Ingredients for hygge are light (though the Danes are unwittingly poisoning themselves with all the candles – oh no!), warmth, equality, togetherness, comfort and shelter. They sound like the perfect ingredients for happiness and getting through the dark days of winter. It’s not surprising that Brits are jumping on the bandwagon.


How to have the happiest life in the world? Grow up in Holland and then move to Denmark

5 January 2017

Why I Moved to Dutchland

photo by Gelya Bogatishcheva

So here’s the thing, Dutch children are the happiest children in the world according to UNICEF (their findings were based on World Health Organization/HBSC long-term research results). Rina and I attempted to figure out why by writing our book, The Happiest Kids in the World. We found plenty of factors that would account for childhood happiness such as little pressure at school, good relationships with parents, lots of autonomy and time to play. The Netherlands is also a relatively safe and affluent country to grow up in.

However, according to the United Nations World Happiness Report, Danish adults are the happiest adults in the world and the Dutch rate at only seventh place. Strange isn’t it? Obviously, the best environment for being a happy child is not the same as for a happy adult. Having greatly enjoyed Helen Russell’s The Year of Living Danishly, I can pinpoint a couple of areas in which the Danes are ahead of the Dutch. For example, Danish adults are very trusting of each other and trust in society provides a sense of security and belonging. What’s more, Danish fathers are even more hands-on than their Dutch equivalents and Danish society seems further along the route to gender equality.

I decided to go through the WHO results published as Social Determinants of Health and Well-Being Among Young People and compare what it said about young Danes. What could be holding them back in childhood? For a start, there is a big difference in their reported relationships with parents. Danish teenagers are down at 18th place (out of the 29 countries surveyed) in relation to ‘finding it easy to talk to their mothers’ and at 15th for ‘finding it easy to talk to their fathers’, whereas the Dutch top both those charts. I’ve heard said that the Danish are more formal toward each other than the Dutch, perhaps they are more authoritarian parents?

Both Danish and Dutch children share a culture of older children not tending to go out with friends during the week – probably because they are doing homework and playing sport, at least that’s my experience here. Incidentally, Greenland is party land for teenagers and the country with the lowest number of teenage virgins in the world. Twice the number of Greenland’s teenagers surveyed have had sex at 15, than in the second country on the list – namely, Denmark. The Dutch, on the other hand, don’t tend to lose their virginity at a young age, they rated near the bottom. Early sex education clearly puts them off!

Teenage drinking is similar in both Denmark and the Netherlands (around average), though more Dutch kids use cannabis, unsurprisingly. Danish boys are significantly more likely to get into a fight than Dutch boys at the ages of 11 and 13, but at 15, Danish boys are less likely to get into a fight. Perhaps the Danes hit puberty earlier? Perhaps they are frustrated at secondary school but calm down later? Do they rebel early and grow to love the system?

Here’s another thing. Danish children feel significantly more pressured at school than Dutch kids – perhaps there is a more aspirational culture, like in the UK? Danish children find their classmates reasonably kind and helpful. They come in around 10th place, whereas Netherlands is higher at 3rd. If you’ve got a competitive system, it affects relationships between peers. Nevertheless, both countries have low figures for bullying.

Healthwise, the scores are similar. Denmark and the Netherlands share the lowest stats on obesity. There is something worrying, however. Denmark rates top in 11, 13 and 15-year-olds engaging in weight-reduction behaviour. (The Netherlands is second to last on this). Why are so many Danish kids on a diet? It’s not that they don’t cycle – there’s a similar cycling culture in Denmark as the one here. They also eat more fruit than the Dutch kids. Is there a kind of health food drive in Denmark that is putting pressure on them? Perhaps they dislike healthy food as kids, but then reap the benefits of having learned to eat healthy as adults?

Finally, here are the results on children who report high life satisfaction:
11-year-old Danes are way down the list #26 (NL is at #2 after Armenia)
13-year-olds climb up slightly to #24 (NL #1)
and 15-year-old Danes suddenly reach 5th place (NL #1)

So what is going on between the ages of 13 and 15 in Denmark that can explain this sudden improvement in life satisfaction? After this, it keeps climbing until they reach number one as adults. I’d love to know what these stats represent, so if you’re Danish or have lived in Denmark and have any ideas, do drop me a line!

My Dutch Life: Maaike Koning

9 December 2016

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Maaike Koning is a Dutch photographer living in Amsterdam with her partner, a photo editor, and their two children, Sam and Sverre, aged twelve and nine. She loves to be outside: biking, gardening and hiking, and enjoys visiting museums and collecting photography books. The entire family travelled through Australia for four months a couple of years ago. She is currently working on several assignments for design and communication agencies and researching a new portrait series.

How long have you been a photographer?

I started studying photographic design at the art college (KABK) in The Hague in 1995 and graduated in 1999. So somewhere in between, I probably ‘became’ a photographer. I got my first job just after I’d graduated. My boyfriend and I took pictures of the kitchen staff for a restaurant guide to London and Amsterdam. We had a great time enjoying all the free food we got in those restaurants.

Was it difficult to find work at first?

Difficult but not impossible. I was really eager to make money out of it… I was lucky enough to get a scholarship (startstipendium) in the year I graduated, so I had time to work on a nice portfolio and buy a good camera. It made things easier. My graduation project was a book about different phases of women’s lives. Making a book was unusual in the pre-digital period. I sold quite a lot of books to design agencies, which meant they did not forget my work and remembered me when they had a suitable assignment. I also joined a photographers’ agency in my first year. But still, the first eight years were off and on, with either having lots of jobs and being incredibly busy, or looking for jobs for months. The last eight years, I have worked for clients who give me enough space for my own style. I also published a book about people and places in Amsterdam Noord. It reflects the identity of this part of Amsterdam, long known as an underprivileged area. Below is a picture from the book. Mr and Mrs De Vries have been married for seventy years, have always lived in Noord and experienced the severe flooding in Oostzaan in 1960 when they witnessed their home-made furniture floating out of the house.

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Have you been influenced by any other Dutch photographers? 

There are so many fantastic talents, not only in Holland. I did my internship with photographer and director Yani. He inspired me a lot. His playful approach to assignments is enviable. Bertien van Manen is one of my favourite documentary photographers. I love the book she made about Russia: A Hundred Summers, A Hundred Winters.

Ed van de Elsken is pretty unique and great. He is one of the documentary photographers who shows that you don’t need to go far away to make great series. Alec Soth, an American photographer, is one of my favourites these days. I love his style and light and the subjects he chooses.

What do you think makes a good photographer?

Difficult… It can be many things. First I would say it’s quite crucial that a photographer develops a style that makes him or her identifiable and recognizable. (This is also important for clients.) Photographers that know what they are doing and why. The photography I love is where the use of daylight is stunning without claiming the entire picture and where the people or animals or moment intrigue me. Then, there is always one very important thing: how people react to the photographer. It all has to do with ‘taste’ and it’s great if it feels like the perfect expression or moment. This does not necessarily mean the sitter has to think it’s a great picture of him or her, but it usually means the viewer is intrigued by the picture, because of something in the picture.

Dutch photographers, artists and architects are all famous for being good with light? Is the light special here? Or is the lack of light in the winter a reason to seek it out and cherish it?

Some people say the beautiful light has to do with the reflection of the sea in the clouds, which makes the light great in a big part of Holland, and also because of the ‘flatness’. I don’t really know. I do know it can be a real challenge. Winters are dark, you really have to search for the light sometimes, but when there’s a sunny day, the light can be awesome. In summer, there is totally different light, so Dutch photographers are experienced in lots of different types of light.

You lived in Australia for a while, would you rather live somewhere other than Holland?

For a long period, I thought I could live in Australia. I lived there for a year when I was younger. I love the wild nature and the infinite space. But when we travelled there with the kids, it felt too far away from home for the long term and the space and hot climate was too much for a daily life. I also realized it was too late for the kids to move. We love our life in Amsterdam far too much to move away for a long time. It gave me peace of mind to realize this.

The trip was great. We did a lot of wild camping, fishing, hiking, we stayed at an aboriginal farm for a while. The kids learned a lot. They shared some of their adventures with their classmates on a blog.

What’s your experience of raising children here? Does it mirror your own childhood or are you doing things differently?

Holland is great for raising kids. It’s quite safe and you can find anything you want for them. My childhood was a bit more free than what I can give my own kids in Amsterdam and I think I grew up a bit more independent than them. I grew up on the edge of a small village. Our large garden bordered a wood in which I’d go on daily expeditions with my brother or friends. We’d build huts, run around, jump over ditches and hide in an empty house. We all cycled alone to school, in my case from the age of seven.

When our daughter was born, we were living in Amsterdam West in a third-floor apartment. I wanted a house with a garden before she could walk, or at least a few trees and a lawn, so that Sam could go on mini-expeditions like the ones I’d been on, without me always having to be there. We found the right house in Amsterdam Noord. Now that the children are older, their ‘territory’ has expanded to fields, woods, and cycle and walking paths in the area. I think it’s important for them to go on expeditions alone. I want them to make their own decisions and, most importantly, have a lot of fun, without their parents hovering over them. Maybe that’s something typically Dutch, letting your children off the leash. In the end it’s also really handy for parents when their children are independent.

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What are the main challenges of raising kids in Holland?

I think the pitfalls can be found in social pressure. For a while, it was a trend to send your children to a crèche for four days a week. I really had to defend myself for choosing not to do that. The children went to a host mother (gastouder) two days a week and for the rest of the time we were either at home or the grandparents helped out. Having less money as a result can also be a choice. Anyway, when your children go to school, there’s more time for work again.

The same goes for all the things your kids do outside school, like music, sports and their swimming diploma. In the Netherlands, parents start with those things very early. I wonder whether it’s really the right thing for every child and I think it’s better to wait until they discover their own interests. I find the school days long enough, certainly for young children.

What you do have in Amsterdam is a lot of choice in terms of education. It’s great that everything is possible, but in total that makes a lot of choices and it can be quite overwhelming. It’s nice if parents are able to choose a path that suits their children, without taking too much notice of what everyone else thinks.

 

All photos (c) Maaike Koning, 2016