The Netherlands is the Sixth Happiest Country in the World

20 March 2017

netherlands-sixth-happiest-country

Today is the International Day of Happiness! And what better way to celebrate it than the annual World Happiness Report announcing the Netherlands as the 6th happiest country on earth! Norway came in first, followed by Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, and Finland. The Netherlands actually moved up a place, from seventh to sixth. If you look at the list closely, the Netherlands also happens to be the “warmest” country in the top seven, or at least the first one with the most moderate temperatures.

First published in 2012, the World Happiness Report aims to highlight the importance of social factors that play a crucial role in the differences in happiness among countries. Apparently, happiness is more than socio-economic factors and policies.

The World Happiness Report ranking is based on a simple question asked in the survey:

“Please imagine a ladder, with steps numbered from 0 at the bottom to 10 at the top. The top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you, and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for you. On which step of the ladder would you say you personally feel you stand at this time?”

Further adding support to the Netherlands as being one of the happiest places in the world, the Dutch National Center for Statistics (CBS) also released a report today stating that 88% of Dutch people surveyed said that they were happy. That’s nearly 90%!

If all this positive news still doesn’t bring a smile to your face, today also happens to be the first official day of Spring! According to Grammarly, spring is a verb that means “to regain hope at the end of four dark months.” Chances are if you’re living in the Netherlands, it feels more like eight months of perpetual darkness and that it’s officially ice-cream and tulip season!

So what can our neighbors across the Atlantic learn from the happy Dutch?

Keep it gezellig.
Gezellig is an untranslatable word that encompasses feelings of belonging, companionship, coziness, love and warmth. Dutch gezelligheid is all about connection. While it may seem similar to the Danish word hygge (which is apparently all the rage these days), gezelligheid a more down-to-earth feeling that makes you feel all warm on the inside.

Make time for friends and family.
The quality of our relationship with friends and family is quite important to our happiness and well-being. Not to be too morbid, but not having spent time with friends and family is one of the regrets people have when they are dying. So while you’re busy pursuing your dreams, make sure to also include your nearest and dearest as part of that journey.

Aim for healthy habits such as daily exercises and a well-balanced diet.
According to CBS, the perception of happiness is closely related to one’s health. The healthier a person is, the happier they seem to be. Those who aren’t in the best of health tend not to consider themselves very happy.

And seriously consider starting the day with some chocolate sprinkles known as hagelslag on buttered white bread.
It’s how many Dutch children (and many adults) start their day. If you don’t know already, The Netherlands is the clear leader in UNICEF League Table of Child Well-Being measuring five dimensions: Material Well-being, Health and Safety, Education, Behaviours and Risks, and Housing and Environment. No other country except the Netherlands ranked in the top five in all dimensions! I have a sneaking suspicion that hagelslag must have something to do with it.

And isn’t it kismet that with all this “happiness” in the air, the Dutch debut of our book De Gelukkigste Kinderen van De Werld is going to be released tomorrow? In the book, we explore exactly why Dutch kids the happiest kids in the world!
Prefer the book in UK English? We’ve got you covered with The Happiest Kids in the World.

The Dutch Illustrator Who Showed Me My Child’s Perspective

1 March 2017

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While I was pregnant with my first son Bram Junior, I began collecting children’s books that I thought were quintessential for his childhood: Goodnight Moon, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, The Little Prince and Where the Sidewalk Ends. Like many parents, I’m a firm believer that no one can ever have enough books, especially from Dr. Seuss, Julia Donaldson, Eric Carle, Shel Silverstein and Roald Dahl. These were the authors that shaped my American childhood, and I wanted my son also to be enriched by the worlds they created.

But the one book that has the most sentimental value for me as a parent is the one gifted to me right before Bram was born. It’s called Nijntje aan zee (Miffy at the Seaside). And it was personally signed by the Dutch illustrator and author himself – Dick Bruna.

What is most striking about Nijntje aan zee – like most of Bruna’s illustrations and stories – is its relatable simplicity. With minimalist black lines and primary colors, the story revolves around Nijntje’s day at the seaside with her father;  how she got dressed in a bathing suit, how they built sandcastles on the beach with her bucket and shovel, how they went swimming and collected shells on the shore, the feelings of disappointment of having to leave, and of falling asleep on the way back home. It’s a universal, recognizable experience shared by all children. What may seem like nothing out of the ordinary and mundane to us adults is a world that captures the imagination of young children and leaves lasting impressions. And that’s where Bruna’s genius lies – creating stories and illustrations that convey a deep empathy and appreciation of a child’s perspective.

Upon hearing the news that Utrecht’s beloved son Dick Bruna died in his sleep on February 16th, 2017, like millions of other Nederlanders, I couldn’t help but feel it as a personal loss. Born into a prominent family of publishers, Bruna spent most of his life in the same quaint, charming Dutch city that I first called home. Being a resident of Utrecht – or the Netherlands for that matter –  Bruna’s influence is everywhere, from street signs near elementary schools reminding cars to slow down, to random Nijntje (Miffy) statues in various Dutch cities. For years, this world-renowned artist who sold over 85 million copies of 100-odd Miffy books was an unassuming, familiar fixture at a local neighborhood café, greeting fans and familiar faces.

Modern parenting these days is a serious business, from pre-conception all the way to adulthood (though parenting, according to many, also never really ends). We all aspire to raise self-assured, happy, successful adults who know their place in the world and make meaningful contributions to the society they live in. Yet in our anxiety to pick the perfect ergonomic baby carriers, stylish Instagram-worthy outfits made by the latest designers, and shelling out our monthly paychecks to create home-cooked meals using only locally produced, organic foods and ingredients, it’s easy to lose sight of what really matters. And if you’re a parent feeling overwhelmed and feeling that it’s just too hard to adult today, consider picking up one of Bruna’s books as a gentle reminder of what really is important to you and your child.

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Chances are, you’ll feel so much better and you’ll realize that you’re probably over-parenting and doing too much. Bruna’s stories revolve around the inherent joy children get doing the most normal, ordinary things: drawing a picture, baking a cake, playing a game of ball, going out to the park, riding a bike and getting ready for bed. It’s really all about fostering meaningful relationships with our young children by simply introducing them to our everyday world. Now that to me is absolute brilliance: a down-to-earth parenting approach in tune with the child’s basic need for love and attention. In other words, calm down and keep it simple.

 

As I kiss my two boys goodnight after re-reading Nijntje aan zee, I can’t help but smile at the idea that Bruna’s world of Nijnjte and friends all started as a way to connect with and entertain his young son during a rainy and windy seaside holiday. Slaap lekker (Sleep sweetly) Mr. Dick Bruna. Till we meet again, I’ll be celebrating my everyday life with my two boys, knowing that in the end, it is the small, seemingly ordinary things that matter the most to them.

 

 

p.s. Enjoyed our blog post? Well, you can read more about our musing of parenting in our book The Happiest Kids in the World. You can buy the UK version available now, or pre-order the American version or the Dutch one today!

Pancake Day 2017 – Celebrating Dutch Pancakes

28 February 2017

pancake day

Pancake Day, formerly known as Shrove Tuesday, is the day before the Christian practice of Ash Wednesday (the first day of Lent). In the Netherlands, even though two-thirds of the Dutch population have no registered religious faith, celebrating Pancake Day is apparently a beloved tradition (neither my husband or I was aware of it until this year). At least, that is the impression you get if you’re a disciple of Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, a famous Dutch Renaissance artist, shared his interpretation of Pancake Day back in 1559 with his painting “The Fight Between Carnival and Lent”. If you rest your eyes towards the center front left, right behind the Prince of Carnival (a jolly man wearing bright red trousers and a blue shirt riding a beer barrel) is a solitary woman hunched down making pancakes (or waffles?). The painting depicts the internal human struggle between revelry and sobriety, of life and death, winter and spring.

Serving pancakes the day before a sustained period of fasting and self-reflection intuitively makes sense. It’s soul food after all – a rich, decadent concoction of white flour, eggs, milk, and butter. It’s a fitting last hurrah before the Christian practice of forty days of penance, austerity, and abstinence (Sundays are spiritual “cheat days” in the modern tradition).

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Pieter Breugel The Elder’s The Fight Between Carnival and Len

The Dutch, of course, have their version of pancakes – a regular diet staple known as pannenkoeken. Not as thick and fluffy as their American cousins and with a bit more substance than their French neighbors, pannenkoeken are just the right texture and consistency, acquiring that elusive Goldilocks-style satisfaction. They’re also much larger – approximately one traditional portion is the size of a dinner plate. Pannenkoeken are rarely eaten for breakfast but usually for dinner at home, or an extravagant lunch – anything that isn’t an open-faced sandwich is considered a luxury in the Low Countries.

Pannenkoeken can be eaten as is, or with savory and sweet combinations of cinnamon, apple, bacon, cheese, and raisins. Depending on which pannenkoekenhuis (a specialized pancake restaurant) you go to, chances are you’ll be surprised with lots of epicurean creativity. My pancake for lunch today was with smoked salmon, spinach, pine nuts and goat cheese. My sons had theirs with apple and cinnamon. And rather than drizzling pannenkoeken with a healthy dose of maple syrup, the Dutch have stroop – a more condensed sugary syrup.

As a cafeteria Catholic and a mom, I love celebrating this day and look forward to Lent. I appreciate setting a specific time each year to reflect on my life, reassess what is and isn’t important to me, and to be more aware of how I spend my time. I use it as a time to take an honest inventory of my life and how I can be a better mother, wife, and overall human being. It is a gentle reminder of my inevitable death – the ashes signed in the shape of a cross on my forehead the next day – “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return“. Lent is basically the magical art of doing a spiritual cleanse en masse.

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It is also customarily a time of fasting for the most devout adult Catholics (two small meals and one regular meal) and sacrificing a particular vice. For children, it usually means giving up chocolate, ice-cream, video games, watching tv or playing with their favorite toy.

A recent interpretation of this period is making it a time to be a better human being. An example is The 40acts challenge  where you take on the challenge of doing one positive act a day starting from Ash Wednesday up to Easter Sunday. Hopefully, the forty-seven days are enough time to make spreading some random act of kindness a daily habit. I find it a refreshing take on Christianity in a world that needs kindness and love more than ever before.

The Magical Art of Talking to Dutch Doctors

24 January 2017

 

talk-dutch-doctor

 

One of those most challenging aspects of living in the Netherlands as an American expat is getting accustomed to the Dutch healthcare system. Specifically, adjusting to the Dutch huisarts – general practitioner – infamous among expat circles and fodder for complaints. “Why go to the Dutch huisarts when chances are they will just prescribe you paracetamol?” is the common complaint among many foreigners about the realities of life in the Low Countries.  

 

Paracetamol is another name for the active ingredient acetaminophen, also known as Tylenol back home in the United States. I’ve popped so much paracetamol since moving here nearly ten years ago that I should have bought stocks in the company.  But here’s something worth considering:  According to the Euro Health Consumer Index 2015 (CHCI), the most recent report available, the Netherlands ranks as the best country in Europe in terms of health care.

 

The Netherlands is “the only country which has consistently been among the top three in the total ranking of any European Index the Health Consumer Powerhouse (HCP) has published since 2005”. Apparently, not only are the happiest kids in the world found in the Netherlands, but also the best healthcare system in Europe. This speaks volumes since we all know how serious European governments are about caring for their sick.

 

Being an American  married to a Dutch guy and having young children adds another dimension to tensions in regards to health and healthcare. The moment one of my sons has a fever of over 39 C (102.2 F), I’m ready to rush straight to the doctor’s office. It’s what most American doctors would recommend, especially for babies. My Dutch husband, on the other hand, would prefer to wait a week or two before even calling the doctor. Yet once I acknowledged some key truths, I came to appreciate the Dutch healthcare system, especially my huisarts. Here are some useful survival “tips” for better understanding the Dutch healthcare system:

 

1 Understand the Dutch (medical) culture and view towards sickness

“Americans go to the doctor to prevent themselves from getting sick, while the Dutch go to the doctor when they are actually really sick,” observed journalist Margriet Oostveen during a recent coffee date. Oostveen lived in Washington D.C. for six years. We were chatting about the differences between the two cultures, and she agreed that one of the major differences is their view on health. Americans try to avoid getting sick at all costs, seeing sickness as a form of weakness and are much more into prevention. The Dutch, on the other hand, see sickness as simply an inconvenient part of life. They just get on with it really, and wait till they are absolutely sick in bed before they manage to drag themselves to the general practitioner.

 

2 Date before making a commitment

Or in other words, “try before you buy”. In the Netherlands, the general practitioner will basically be the physician that you have the most contact with. Unlike the US system, specialists such as pediatricians and gynecologists are only seen based on the referral of a general practitioner and usually if there is a serious medical condition. Chances are there will be several practices available near where you live. The website www.kiesuwhuisarts.nl provides information on all the available options. It is possible to change doctors but best to have a trial appointment with them first before actually signing up. Don’t be shy and date around for the “right match”.

 

There’s nothing wrong with finding a general practitioner who is culturally sensitive. I totally adore my current huisarts who I affectionately refer to as -“Dr. Google” (We actually have Googled together at his clinic to confer on a diagnosis). I am, and will probably always be, more the neurotic American with a soft spot for medicines and medical tests to make sure that I have a clean bill of health.  My huisarts understands this and knows when to comfort me and send me away for more paracetamol.

 

3 Communicate in a clear, direct pragmatic manner
Dutch general practitioners and specialists, like most humans, are not mind readers. In a perfect world, they would have impeccable bedside manners, give you their undivided attention, and understand what you really mean. Dutch doctors, however, are only human. A simple approach when visiting the general practitioner would be to give them a detailed history and to be as direct as possible. If you’re really sure that you may need further treatment, do not hesitate in asking for a second opinion from one of their colleagues.( Hence, it’s crucial to take my second tip of carefully selecting your general practitioner seriously.)

 

4 Dutch doctors take the threat of antibiotic resistance seriously

Antibiotic resistance is one of the biggest threats to our modern day life. We have to remind ourselves of a simple truth: Antibiotics are medicines used to prevent and treat bacterial infections. The flu, which can leave many people sick for weeks on end, is a virus. Antibiotics cannot kill viruses. Dutch doctors recognize this threat and are aware of it, and thus only prescribe antibiotics if they can diagnose a person with a bacterial infection and not a viral infection.

 

5 Wait two weeks with any minor ailments before going to your GP

Dutch doctors are very pragmatic and not keen to waste time and resources, so the chances are if you have a minor ailment like a cough or stomach ache, they’ll tell you to simply wait two weeks and come back only if it doesn’t go away on its own.

 

 

P.S. We wrote a book called “The Happiest Kids in the World; Bringing up Children the Dutch way.”
P.P.S. If you happen to have already read the book, please share your thoughts! Sharing (your thoughts) is caring!

Publication Day of The Happiest Kids in the World (United Kingdom)

12 January 2017

Today is officially publication day of The Happiest Kids in the World in the United Kingdom and Ireland! The English edition is also now available in Australia and New Zealand, the Netherlands, India, Singapore, Malaysia, Switzerland, Hong Kong and Lebanon!

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So far, we’ve garnered a bit of attention with our friends from across the pond and a couple of nice reader reviews on Goodreads.com (please add more if our words resonate with you). Here’s what some people have to say about our book:

 

“Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant!” Chris Evans on BBC Radio 2, Breakfast Show

 

“Clear and concise, with plenty of anecdotes from family life to illustrate the argument, this is one of the most convincing parenting books to come across my desk in the last year.”

                                               Sian Griffiths, education editor of The Sunday Times

 

“An eye-opening and badly needed dose of perspective. In my next life, I want to be Dutch.”   

                                                Pamela Druckerman, author of French Children Don’t Throw Food

 

“A fascinating book – one I wish I had read sooner! In fact, the more I read the more I became tempted to move our entire family to the Netherlands…”

                                                Sarah Turner author of The Unmumsy Mum


A major serial piece ran in
The Telegraph Weekend:  They raise the world’s happiest children – so is it time you went Dutch? And there was a glowing review in The Sunday Times

 

From the bottom of our hearts, we would like to thank you for your continued support and readership.

 

If you happen to be in Amsterdam this Saturday and want something gezellig to do, come join us for our book launch at 3:30 pm! Or if you can’t make it, we’ll be in the American Book Centre in the Hague on February 11th.

P.s. If you like to procrastinate a bit more from work, come join our Facebook group or read some of our recent blogs at FindingDutchland.com. These past few weeks we’ve written about Gezelligheid & Hygge, The Dutch vs the Danes, The Case for Giving Kids a Basic Income, Oliebollen, Papadag and much more!


P.p.s And come join our mailing list. We promise not to be annoying and rarely send those out anyway.

The Case for Giving Kids a Basic Income

4 January 2017

giving-kids-basic-income.jpg

 

On January 2nd, the Sociale Verzekeringsbank or Social Insurance Bank, transferred two payments of  €198.38 into my bank account. One for each of my two boys, both of whom are under the age of six. The extra cash appears like magic every quarter (January, April, July and October), courtesy of SVB with a simple one-word note: kinderbijslag or child benefit.

Every family in the Netherlands with kids under the age of eighteen is entitled to the child benefit. The universal kinderbijslag is independent of the parents’ income. The amount increases when children get older to accommodate for extra expenses –  €240.89 for children aged six to twelve and €283.40 for children thirteen years old up to and including seventeen.

As an American mom living in Holland, having regular cash allowances for my children is such a foreign concept. The Dutch universal child benefit is not a unique scheme either. A 2012 UNICEF report on child poverty evaluating thirty-five economically advanced countries notes that the United States is the only one that does not have any form of cash allowance policies. (Interestingly, the United Kingdom is currently one of the very few countries in Europe that don’t offer the benefit for all children. Households earning more than £50,000 are subject to a tax deduction.)

A recent longitudinal study from King’s College London makes a compelling case for introducing universal child benefits. The study tracked more than 1,000 people from ages 3 to 38 years, confirming associations between childhood adversity and negative life outcomes such as falling deeper into poverty as adults, committing crimes and developing addictions. That’s thirty five years of observations. Researchers suggest that decreasing adverse childhood experiences may be able to influence more positive outcomes. By implementing a universal child benefit, parents may be able to provide more secure and stable households – using the extra cash to pay for diapers, food, and clothes.

My initial American bootstrap-intuition considered the universal child benefit a case of European socialism gone wild. And who is to say that parents won’t use the extra cash on themselves instead? The reality is – supported by tons of research –  parents, especially those who come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, really do use the child benefit allowance for their children.

What should be more shocking is how the United States tolerates one of the highest rates of child poverty in the industrialized world. Approximately 20.1% of children live in poor households in the United States as compared to only 6.3% in the Netherlands. Even more shocking – nearly one in three American families struggle to afford enough diapers. A universal child benefit like the one in the Netherlands can dramatically make a difference, giving more equitable access to necessities like diapers.

Why not implement a minimum level of well-being for all children? The child benefit allowance isn’t at all about giving extra money to parents. It’s trying to give every child a starting fair chance. Through all our American policy debates, what we should all keep in mind is that it really is all about the children – society’s most vulnerable. 


P.S. And while we’re discussing a basic income for children, the Dutch are even toying with the idea of giving everyone a welfare allowance, inspired by the Finnish experiment. Now isn’t that interesting?


P.P.S.  Want to know why Dutch kids are the happiest in the world? Pre-order the UK edition of our book here  http://bit.ly/HappiestKids. Or the US edition here: http://amzn.to/2dhGJJT

A Dutch New Year (Oliebollen Recipe)

31 December 2016

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“Fijne jaarwisseling,” says my neighbour Wim as he hands me and my son Bram Julius freshly made oliebollen – fried dough filled with raisins, apples, and currants, and then dusted with powdered sugar right before being served. And nothing else brings as much nostalgia and childhood memories of a Dutch New Year than oliebollen.

In the days leading up to New Year’s Eve, oliebollen are found everywhere – from seasonal stands, bakeries, and supermarkets. There’s even a nationwide competition to see who can bake the tastiest oliebollen. But the best, in my not-so-humble opinion, are always the ones made at home.

Bram Julius and I are in Wim’s and his wife Mariska’s kitchen to get an insider’s view on this beloved Dutch tradition. There are several pots on the stove filled with hot oil. The kitchen counter and island are littered with dozens upon dozens of oliebollen resting on cooling racks, or piled high on plates once they’ve cooled down. They bake over three hundred oliebollen to share among family, friends, and neighbours.

On the last day of the year for as long as he can remember, Wim starts getting everything ready at around 3:00 pm. Gradually different members of the family drop in to help here and there, lingering long enough to grab a bite of a freshly baked oliebol when they can. The scene is relaxed and joyful. The process of making all the oliebollen is a time of being together as a family, reflecting on the year they have had and looking forward to what awaits them in the coming one. It is gezellig – warm, cozy and intimate.

Wim inherited the oliebollen recipe from his uncle who once owned a bakery in Utrecht. Though the bakery has long closed, the memories and tradition are very much alive in his kitchen.


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According to the article “The History of the Doughnut” in The Smithsonian magazine, oliebollen are considered the grandfather of American doughnuts. Dutch settlers in Manhattan, formerly known as New Amsterdam, introduced “olykoeks” or oily cakes to their fellow Americans. Supposedly, the name evolved to oliebollen – oily balls – because of their irregular round shape.

And no wonder they became an instant hit in the New World. Once you take a bite of the crispy outer shell, with the sugar melting in your mouth and the chewy textured center, chances are you’ll have a foodgasm.

Bram pulls at my sleeve, indicating for more.

“Just one more,” I say.

He runs over to Wim who already has one ready for him.

 

Finding Dutchland’s Olieballen Recipe
Ingredients
2 (0.6 ounce) packages of dried (instant) yeast

1/2 cup lukewarm milk

1 teaspoon sugar

4 cups all-purpose flour

1 1/2 cup lukewarm milk

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup sugar

2 eggs

1 cup dried currants

1 cup raisins

2 Granny Smith apples- peeled, cored and finely chopped

1 quart vegetable oil for deep-frying

1 cup confectioners’ sugar for dusting


Directions

In a small bowl, mix the teaspoon of sugar into 1/2 cup of warm milk. Sprinkle the yeast and wait for the concoction to bubble (may take up to ten minutes). Then stir in the mixture really well.

In a separate large bowl, sift the 4 cups flour, 1/4 cup sugar, and 1 teaspoon of salt. Make a hole in the flour mixture and add the 2 eggs, the yeast milk mixture and 1 1/2 cups lukewarm milk. Mix all ingredients well.

“Knead” the batter with a mixer at a high speed for 4 to 5 minutes.

Add the raisins, currants and apple. Mix well with a spoon, or the lowest setting of the mixer.

Cover the bowl with a moist towel or plastic wrap and place in a warm area for about 1 hour. The dough is ready when it is double the original size.

Preheat the vegetable oil in a deep-fryer, or a large pot for frying to a temperature of 180 degree Celsius.

Working in batches, use a metal ice-cream scooper (sprayed with oil so batter won’t stick) to form balls (6 cm). Gently drop them into the oil and bake for 5 minutes, turning them over halfway to cook thoroughly . They will appear golden and crispy.

Remove with a slotted spoon and place on a cooling wrack with a paper towel underneath to catch the excess oil.

Dust doughnuts generously with confectioner’s’ sugar and enjoy with caution (could be really hot and difficult to just have one).

 

Psst. Want to know why Dutch kids are the happiest in the world? Pre-order the UK edition of our book here:

 Or the US edition here: http://amzn.to/2dhGJJT

Work Life Balance Not a Myth: Dutch Dads Leading the Way

13 December 2016

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Wouldn’t it be amazing if dads could spend one day a week fully in charge of their little ones? It would definitely be a prime example of having the best of both worlds – an opportunity to both be successful in one’s career as well as set time aside for parenthood. An article in the Volkskrant Half of Young Fathers Spend One Day a Week Taking Care of the Children” highlights the growing popularity of Papadag (Daddy day) in mainstream Dutch culture. Rather than being an alternative lifestyle for a select few, Papadag is becoming more the norm according to the Emancipation Monitor 2016, a biennial survey conducted by the Social and Cultural Planning Office (SCP) and the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS).

In fact, 50% of the people surveyed believed that a four-day work week was ideal for fathers with fathers. (Incidentally, some Dutch parents take offense with the word Papadag as they feel that the word implies that fathers play more of the role of a babysitter on that given day. What’s more, why aren’t the days mothers take care of their kids called Mamadags? Kids are everyone’s responsibility.)

While most men can’t officially take a full day off during the week, they are able to manage sneaking in an unofficial Papadag with a flexible work schedule and a 36 hour working week that allows them to work more hours the other four days and from home. According to the latest research, 38% of men work from the comfort of their own home one day a week.

 

My Dutch husband Bram Braakman, a thirty-seven year old entrepreneur and father of two, is one of the dads who happily incorporated Papadag into his life. “I love being able to spend time with my boys. Saturday is usually my day to be in charge of them – from preparing all their meals, to taking them out, diaper and potty duty, etc. Though it’s definitely not typical – most Dutch dads have their Papadag during the week – neither is my line of work.” says Bram. “They look forward to it, and as they get older, especially my four year-old, he understands that it’s the day I give him and his brother my undivided attention. And I also enjoy giving my wife some breathing space to have some time for herself.”

Dutch moms also enjoy the benefits of the part-time work culture in the Netherlands. Many continue working part-time even after all the children have started school full-time or have left the nest. But that’s a whole other discussion.

Parenting is challenging enough wherever you are. However, the Dutch have managed to create an enviable work-life balance. Wouldn’t it be amazing if the rest of world actually caught up with the Papadag trend?

 

Psst…Want to know more about why Dutch children are the happiest in the world? We wrote an entire book about it. You can pre-order your copy on Amazon.uk

 

 

Falling for the Hatchimal Craze: Parenting Fail

25 November 2016

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Only now I’m a parent do I realize just how clever and merciless toy companies, retailers and their commercials can be in hyping a new toy in limited quantities just in time for the gift giving holiday season. And in our American-Dutch household, we’re twice as vulnerable as we open our wallets two times in rapid succession  – on the fifth of December with Dutch Sinterklaas and on Christmas morning with American Santa Claus.

The hottest toy of 2016 – a Hatchimal – was staring right at me in the local toy store’s window. Something  between a Tamagotchi and a Furby, a Hatchimal is a stuffed imaginary animal that hatches itself out of an egg with a child’s help. It’s vaguely reminiscent of the strange phenomenon  of those youtube videos featuring anonymous strangers opening surprise eggs and toys that mesmerize toddlers. This unboxing mania is quite unnerving, especially to a mom who prefers her baby and toddler to have a relatively unplugged, old school childhood.

But there was the Hatchimal, an irresistible temptation beckoning me to walk into the store and buy it for my four year-old. Mind you, he doesn’t even know they exist. I felt a momentary smug satisfaction at proving newspaper articles like The Guardian’s Hatchimal – the must have Christmas toy you simply can’t get , Bloomberg’s This $60 Egg Just Cracked The Holiday Market and The Daily Mail’s The must-have toy that is every parents’ nightmare this Christmas: Hatchimal egg is so popular it has already sold out all wrong. Apparently, in Holland, I could easily get one.

€59 poorer and feeling quite foolish, I Whats’ apped my co-author Michele with a picture of the Hatchimal and the words “Dutch parenting fail”.   

“Was the Hatchimal a shoe gift? Is it a bad thing? What is it? Is it expensive?” texted Michele back. “I’m busy getting mostly craft stuff for Ina, school stationery for Ben, and socks for everyone.”

Her response made me pause. A shoe gift refers to the Dutch tradition of children leaving out their shoes, often with a drawing and a carrot placed inside for Sinterklaas and his horse Amerigo in exchange for a small gift. Usually it’s a chocolate letter, or a toy costing no more than €3.50. I hadn’t even thought that far ahead yet whether the Hatchimal would be a shoe gift, or a larger gift from Sinterklaas on pakjesavond (the main gift giving day), or from Santa Claus.

I’m an American and though I can fake-it-till-I-make-it about being integrated into pragmatic, sober and thrifty Dutch culture, my true colors betray me during anything celebratory – birthdays, holidays, you name it. Perhaps it’s because I am overcompensating for past childhood disappointments of never getting any of the must-have toys like Cabbage Patch Kids Dolls, Tickle Me Elmo, and Beanie Babies. Dig a little bit deeper, and it’s really about my deep-rooted fear of missing out and wanting to fit in. And I don’t want my own kids to miss out either, as a consequence.

Intent on getting to the bottom of this holiday toy craze, I did what any parent would do: crowdsource my mommy social network on Facebook. I asked them if whether or not they have heard of a Hatchimal, is it all just hype and if they would try to make any extra effort in purchasing one.

Jennifer Weedon Palazo from MomCave TV responded, “I’ve never heard of it. I’m in Massachusetts. But it looks like another piece of junk I’ll regret buying!”

Another friend of mine Kim Bongiorno from Let Me Start by Saying gave me some insight. “My nine-year-old discovered Hatchimals on her own, and was genuinely thrilled once I found one. Was it worth the extra effort to go through to get it? Yes. She adores it, and it lives in an adorable little nest she keeps by her bed.” wrote Kim back. “But the toy itself is already a bit overpriced in my opinion. It did not hatch on it’s own: we had to help it along the way. I’m glad I only put in extra time –not money–in seeking it out.”

Curious to know if this phenomenon has reached Dutch shores, I turned to Ray van Os, a happily married father of three. “I think I saw a commercial about that toy last week,” said Ray. “ But I am not going to get it for Sinterklaas for two reasons. First of all, they haven’t even asked for one yet so why get it for them?” said Ray. “The child in me says it is really cool, but the Dutch parent in me tells me that it is a very expensive toy. We have three daughters and I’d have to get three of them. We try not to spoil them.”

Perhaps my friend Lucia Bill, a Dutch mom repatriating back to the Netherlands from Doha, would know. “Hi dear! Actually my kids did not mention it and this is the first time I’m seeing one, or hearing about it.” responded Lucia Boll.

Chances are, as Michele and I suspect, the Hatchimals will also be heavily advertised over the coming period and be on the Christmas lists of Dutch children too. Toy trends often start in the United States  and make their way across the pond. And like with almost every other toy out there, the desire for Hatchimals will die down after the holiday season when there are plenty in stock and their novelty has already worn off. The mixed reviews of the Hatchimal, especially from disappointed parents and children, further re-affirm this temporal toy craze.

The problem is, the premise that you need to buy your child this year’s Christmas it-toy is a modern day, consumerist construct deeply ingrained in my American culture. We’ve someone convinced ourselves as parents that getting such a rare toy would make Christmas morning even more magical and earn bragging rights in the world of competitive parenting.

Christmas toy crazes aren’t yet ingrained in Dutch culture because not only are the Dutch much more pragmatic, but they’re also quite economical. The reason I could easily get one in our local store was that regardless of one’s own economic circumstances, it’s traditionally against thrifty Dutch morals to spend so much money on a frivolous toy. And making a concerted effort to purchase such a toy, if demand did ever exceed supply, would be akin to the walk of shame after a one-night-stand – shameful and best kept to yourself.

As I stare at the purple Hatchimal penguala (they come in five species), I’m tempted to return it. But I decided to keep it as a reminder to never fall for the Christmas toy hype again. Perhaps though, the ultimate judge will be my four year old son when he opens it on Sinterklaas morning.

On Writing, Motherhood and Mentorship

15 November 2016

lifteachotherup_libbyvanderploeg

“Hi, I’m Michele” said this impossibly gorgeous and tall British woman. “I’m Rina.” I replied.


I found myself bracing the frigid February wind to meet my new co-author. And like on any blind date, I was anxious and self-conscious. Just three months beforehand, another random stranger, Marianne Velmans, had emailed me suggesting I
write a book. After reading my preliminary book proposal, she asked – ever so delicately – if I would consider working with her former colleague Michele Hutchison.   


The story that Marianne had in mind was best written by two mothers – one who could write about pregnancy, babies and toddlers (early motherhood) and another who could write about childhood, schools, and teenagers. I wholeheartedly agreed with her. And so did Michele.


But could we trust Marianne to be the right matchmaker? The chemistry had to be just right.


Michele and I decided to meet in Utrecht – a city conveniently located in the middle of Holland, between her home in Amsterdam and mine in Doorn. I suggested the Japanese restaurant Moto because of my pregnancy cravings for udon and tempura.


I tried my best to come with no expectations and meeting in a public place would give a convenient exit strategy just in case it got awkward. I had a sneaking suspicion that she had similar sentiments too.

 

But when I saw her, I was already smitten and it seemed as I was saying hello to an old friend I hadn’t seen for a very long time.


I don’t remember much of our first meeting to be honest. But there were two particular instances that I can recall which left a lasting impression.


The first one was her gently letting me know how intense our relationship and contact would be. “You do know that we would regularly have to be in contact with each other,” said Michele.

 

“Sure, no problem.” I said. I could always use another real life friend. After all, most of my friends were what I called online friends – people who I regularly connected to on Facebook groups and messenger without ever having met in the real world, or who simply live thousands of miles away. My life was conventionally boring, filled with domestic chores, running after my three year-old son and being pregnant.

What I only understood afterwards, well into writing The Happiest Kids in the World was just how intense our communication had to be. We really had to be the best of friends, or it just wouldn’t work. Only after I co-wrote our book could I fully appreciate Michele’s kindness, openness and willingness to work with me. She also became my mentor, teaching me actually how to write a book. I’m ambitious (both by nature and as a product of Tiger parenting) but suffice to say, I had no idea what writing a book actually entailed until I started  doing it. And I guarantee you, it is not for the faint of heart to write a nonfiction book filled with interviews and an honest account of a foreign culture.


I also remember just how unexpectedly supportive Marianne and Michele were about me being an aspiring author and a mother. I blurted out, “Before agreeing with working with me, I have to tell you something. I’m pregnant.”


“Oh, I know. Marianne told me,” replied Michele.

I smiled. Marianne also had a similar positive reaction when I told her.  “Congratulations! What wonderful news, Rina.”


“You’re still willing to work with me?” I said.


“Of course!  Why should your pregnancy prevent you from writing this book?” Marianne said.


Where I come from, it seems that
motherhood and writing are incompatible. The creative life – if one wants to take it seriously and do well – is often romanticized as demanding all one’s attention, leaving little room and time for distractions. Motherhood – the all-consuming, martyr mother image that my American culture puts on a pedestal – demands so much energy that supposedly, not much is left over for creative endeavors, or even work at all.


Yet Michele and Marianne knew another secret. That one can reconcile one’s identities as both a
mother and a writer. The subject matter, after all, was about parenting the happiest kids in the world. Surely mothers should know a bit about happiness too. And apparently, Michele and Marianne were ready to show me the way.


(Lift Each Other GIF courtesy of illustrator and designer Libby VanderPloeg)