The Simple Message Behind Miffy, the Beloved Dutch Character

14 June 2017

Father’s day is around the corner, and I can’t help but think of the unofficial Opa (grandfather) of the Netherlands: Dick Bruna. With nothing more than a blank piece of paper, a pencil, and a desire to entertain his young son during a rainy, seaside holiday, Bruna created Miffy, known as Nijntje (pronounced nein-che, “little rabbit”) in Holland. With his signature gray hair and mustache, round glasses, and soft-hearted nature, Bruna reminded me of a real-world version of Mister Gepetto from “The Adventures of Pinocchio.” As Gepetto-incarnate, ever so humble and kind, Bruna’s brought so much happiness to everyone who stumbled upon his work.

Bruna had an innate understanding of the world of children, creating characters, settings and rhyming storylines that were as simple as possible.  Like a wise, kind grandfather figure, Bruna celebrated what we as adults often take for granted and consider insignificant minutiae of life but are held dear to small children – getting ready for bed, preparing breakfast, celebrating a birthday, going to the beach, visiting the zoo, and riding a bike.

For many Dutch children, the Miffy books are their first introduction to reading. Ina, the ten-year-old daughter of Michele Hutchison – the co-author of our recently published book, The Happiest Kids in the World – says, “my favorite book when I was little was Miffy at the Zoo. I like how the stories rhyme.” “The writer Dick Bruna died recently and that’s really sad,” she said, clearly still remembering the sense of loss that was felt across the nation, and reverberated around the world. My husband Bram often reads the Miffy books to our two boys, and bedtime wouldn’t be complete without a stuffed Miffy doll in our almost two-year-old’s arms.

 

Bruna’s stories evoke nostalgia in parents, highlighting common, everyday experiences all children are familiar with. Getting lost in the world of Miffy and friends gives us the opportunity to re-realize that childhood (and life in general) is really all about the small, simple everyday pleasures. “I always loved the drawings; they are so simple and colorful. They made the books really special,” says Ina’s eleven-year-old friend Noor.

For children around the world, especially in Holland and in Japan, Miffy is very much alive. Her influence extends beyond the pages of the books she’s featured in.  Miffy is everywhere young children can be found: nursery decorations, street signs warning drivers to slow down, schools, museums, parks, beaches, zoos, and airports. And for many Dutch children, childhood isn’t complete without the joy of Miffy. And as grown-ups, many Dutch people can still quote their favorite Miffy books off by heart.
It isn’t hard to imagine Bruna as an honorary grandfather figure in his home country, especially in Utrecht where he was born and where he lived most of his life. Despite being a world-renowned artist who sold over 85 million copies of 100-odd Miffy books, Bruna remained an unassuming familiar fixture at a local neighborhood café in Utrecht for decades, greeting fans and familiar faces. He would also randomly appear, unannounced to the delight of children and parents, to Miffy-related performances and events. Bruna knew the secret to living a life well lived, having once been quoted, “For me, happiness is cycling to my studio very early in the morning.”


Rina Mae Acosta is the co-author, with Michele Hutchison, of “The Happiest Kids in the World How Dutch Parents Help Their Kids (and Themselves) by Doing Less.”

 

 

Reclaiming Summer Vacation, the Dutch Way

1 June 2017

Summer has (un)officially arrived, or is just around the corner. Images of lazy days of children playing at the beach and bright blue skies at some exotic destination or summer camps in pristine nature come to mind. Yet the reality is, for many families, summer is a “financial and logistical nightmare“.

Most of us cannot afford to take the entire time off – ten to eleven weeks for American children and five to six weeks for the Dutch.  There’s also this unspoken, often self-imposed pressure to give our children an amazing, magical summer experience. And if we’re fortunate enough to be able to take a week or two,  there’s this pervasive idea that a ” fantastic family summer vacation” is synonymous with plane tickets, hotel stays, and (exotic) exciting destinations. Think a trip to Disneyland, lounging around Aix en Provence, an all-inclusive resort in Mexico, or doing some island hopping in Hawaii.  And with that naturally, comes the feeling of guilt and jealousy of others if we fall short of living up to these expectations.

But for the Dutch, summer is something that they all seem to look forward to without that emotional and financial baggage. After doing some (Google) research,  interviewing dozens of Dutch families, and reflecting on my own personal experience as a child and then a mother, I think I’m onto something. And I am convinced that the secret lies in embracing three complementary things: low-cost, down-to-earth activities, boredom, and Dutch gezelligheid.

 

Embracing low-cost, down-to-earth activities

What’s admirable about the Dutch is that they take pride in being cheap. They’re able to have wonderful, memorable moments without feeling compelled to break the bank. In fact, the less they spend, the happier they are and the more bragging rights they have. This summer, my family and I decided to have a staycation in the Netherlands. Be prepared for regular pictures of us at the local beach and eating our homemade sandwiches.

Some suggestions are:

Camping

Nothing screams a Dutch holiday than camping. Whether it’s doing it the classic way of pitching up your own tent, going all out on a caravan, or glamping. Camping is a beloved Dutch institution that crosses all socioeconomic lines. There are even camps in France, Spain, and Italy that cater to the Dutch clientele, providing them with Heineken, Dutch farmer’s cheese, peanut butter, and their favorite brand of toilet paper.

Playing Tourist in Your Homebase

I love playing “tourist” in the area of where I live. A trip to the local ice-cream shop, library, park, nature reserve, beach,  a museum can be glorious.  

Bonus if you live in the Netherlands or have easy access to the Low Countries
One of the best-kept secrets in the Netherlands is its white sand beaches. Castricum aan Zee, Zandvoort, Bloemendaal, and Scheveningen are our favorite, family friendly beaches to go to

 

Embracing Boredom

In an ideal world, I would love “boredom” to be the next parenting trend (second, of course, to going Dutch).  According to research (http://www.bbc.com/news/education-21895704), ” Children need to have stand-and-stare time, time imagining and pursuing their own thinking processes or assimilating their experiences through play or just observing the world around them.” Boredom, or more accurately, unstructured time facilitates this.

 

Dutch parents believe in the gift of boredom. For them, it means allowing children to simply play outside in their living rooms or the garden, or with neighborhood children out on the streets left to their own devices.

 

Dutch Gezelligheid

“Gezelligheid” is an untranslatable word that encompasses the feeling of coziness, warmth, love and belonging. It’s similar to the trendy Danish Hygge in that it embraces the idea of enjoying life’s simple pleasures. What puts Dutch gezelligheid above its Danish cousin Hygge is that gezelligheid is primarily focused on relationships, on spending time together. Gezelligheid is done with other people, not on your own. Let that sink in for a moment. Gezelligheid is really is about relationships and nurturing the ties that bind. Think sharing stories over a campfire, running around the sprinkler on the grass, baking a birthday cake, having pancakes for dinner.  It’s all about the quality of time spent together as a family.  And though we all live busy lives, if we can give them at least twenty minutes of our undivided attention regularly, it goes a long way.

 

Children, especially in the early years, won’t remember the details of their summer vacation but rather how they felt when they were with their parents. Recently, British child psychologist Oliver James even went as far as to suggest that taking your children on foreign holidays is bad for their mental health. Though I don’t personally agree with him in that regards, I do think there is a lot of truth when he argues that “children are easily pleased by the simple things”.


And more often than not, it’s the simple things – often that are free or don’t cost too much – like playing hide and seek at home, dancing and singing along their favorite songs, or having a picnic in the backyard, are what children consider magical. In fact, it’s all about simply spending time with each other. Dutch parents place a lot of emphasis on family togetherness, on simply being present with their children. This is what the concerted effort goes into – not the details of the actual vacation.

 
P.s. Does this resonate with you? Any chance you may be inspired going Dutch, parenting-wise? Well, we wrote a book about it.

 

 

Where There Are No Valedictorians

24 May 2017

 


Being class valedictorian is an honor for most families around the world. Graduating at the top of the class seems to be every parent’s dream come true – an official title bestowed to being the best and the brightest, with promises of a wonderful, successful life ahead.

Everywhere, it seems, except for the Netherlands. There simply is none. There is no broadcast system (award ceremonies) at school assemblies. Children and teenagers here are not ranked.  As my co-author, Michele Hutchison writes in our book, “In the Netherlands, however, it isn’t all about getting straight As and getting into the right university. Education here has a different purpose. It is traditionally seen as the route to a child’s well-being and their development as an individual.There are two kinds of higher education qualifications here: research-oriented degrees offered by universities and profession-oriented degrees offered by colleges.” Hutchison explains that in Dutch high schools, there is constant testing and grades, but they are not comparative, i.e., no ranking or position in the class.

So imagine my surprise and amusement when I stumbled upon Eric Barker’s Time article “Wondering What Happened to Your Class Valedictorian? Not Much, Research Shows.” Barker posits: “But how many of these number-one high school performers go on to change the world, run the world, or impress the world? The answer seems to be clear: zero.”

According to Barker, there are two simple reasons: “First, schools reward students who consistently do what they are told. Academic grades correlate only loosely with intelligence (standardized tests are better at measuring IQ). Grades are, however, an excellent predictor of self-discipline, conscientiousness, and the ability to comply with rules.”

Granted, the sample size of the research study to make such a sweeping statement is quite small – only 81 high school valedictorians and salutatorians were involved. Yet, the conclusions intuitively make sense. The current school system, after all, has clear rules and set expectations of accomplishments. Life and the real world is a lot messier with a lot more uncertainties and variables. Academic achievement in school does not necessarily correlate to achievement in life.

Karen Arnold, a researcher involved in the study Barker quoted, says,  “Many of the valedictorians admitted to not being the smartest kid in class, just the hardest worker. Others said that it was more an issue of giving teachers what they wanted than actually knowing the material better.”

Not all of us can just pack our bags and move to the Netherlands. What we can do as parents, however, is start seeing our child for who they are. So chances are if your child isn’t going to be valedictorian – which is highly more like the case because there can only be one – don’t be disappointed. What’s most important is helping your child discover their interests and passions. And isn’t having a happy, self-aware, resilient and curious child the best way to help them lead successful, happy lives in the future?

Foto above of my two boys at the University of California Berkeley, my alma mater 

This is Thirty-Five

23 May 2017



I welcomed my 35th birthday listening to the wise words of rapper 50 Cent, “Go shawty, it’s your birthday. We gon’ party like it’s yo birthday.” Except, you wouldn’t find me at the club. I  spent it by having coffee at my favorite local café with a dear friend, going to the village farmer’s market, stealing some time to write, and cooking and enjoying an elaborate dinner for a party of six.

I’ve also just gotten home from a whirlwind, four-week book tour and family vacation to San Francisco, New York, Washington D.C., and a farm in England. There’s nothing like a life-changing trip (first book tour ever) and a landmark birthday as the impetus for doing some serious soul-searching and taking an honest inventory of my life.

So since it was my birthday, I’m taking this opportunity to share what I know being thirty-five years young:


Less is More

There’s a reason why Marie Kondo’s “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” continues to spark a decluttering craze around the planet. Her tough love approach to only holding on to what’s essential and what sparks joy is transformative. Having less stuff really does lead to genuine bliss – I’ve made going Kondo a yearly endeavor.

Not Giving a F*ck (Valuing My Time and Mastering the Art of Saying “No”)

Sarah Knight’s “The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck: How to Stop Spending Time You Don’t Have with People You Don’t Like Doing Things You Don’t Want To Do” sums it all up. I’ve learned to value my time and no longer feel socially obligated to being around people and situations that do not bring me joy. In a world of saying “yes” and the real fear of missing out, it’s no wonder that people find it nearly impossible to have a work-life balance. I’ve learned that being able to say “no” helps me establish clear boundaries and to accomplish the goals I have set out.

Finding Joy in the Mundane and the Ordinary

A large part of my reality involves managing the household – laundry, cleaning, cooking, grocery shopping and random errands. Rinse and repeat. There’s also being a mother to two little boys. I’ve learned to see the daily grind as signs of privilege and blessings – that we have clothes to wear, a roof over our head, more than enough food on the table, and the luxury to have a boring reality that requires maintenance, love, and care.

Being Grateful and Acknowledging My Privilege

It’s easy to count the strikes against me: I’m a person of color (Filipino ancestry), a woman, short, and not born with a trust fund. I also acknowledge my privilege as a middle-class, highly educated American married to a Dutch citizen and raising my children in the Netherlands. I am immensely grateful for this lot I have in life. And though the creative life (author) is rife with a lot of insecurity (personal and financial), inklings of self-doubt, brick walls, and frustrations, it is a privilege to be able to pursue it. Whatever successes I do have in life, it is also not something I accomplished alone. It’s because of all the love and support of kind souls, friends, family, and strangers that have helped me get to where I am today.

Saying What I Mean and Meaning What I Say

Horton, the elephant in Dr. Seuss’ “Horton Hatches the Egg”, once said,  “I meant what I said and I said what I meant. An elephant’s faithful one-hundred percent”. Dutch directness is one of my favorites aspects of Dutch culture. Though it might at times be challenging when speaking to American, British, and Asians and basically everyone else who are accustomed to more indirect and polite way of communicating, I love no longer having to second guess and wonder what people mean. There’s definitely a lot less anxiety and stress over it.

Loving the Skin I’m In

It took my thirty-five years to genuinely love and accept my dark complexion and my wobbly bits. With regular applications of sunscreen, I’m showing my children not to be afraid to turn their face towards the sun. Generations of backward colonial mentality stops with me. And since this is the only life that I get to have (that I am aware of), I might as well enjoy the only body given to me. Part of that, of course, is eating relatively healthy with foods that feed both my body and soul, and regular exercise.

Being a Work-In-Progress

I’ve come to realize and accept the fact that I will always be a work-in-progress. I’m only human after all. And that part of being alive is self-discovery. I hope never to stop wanting to learn, to always discover new things and let my curiosity lead the way.

Kindness and Love

Always choose kindness and love in whatever you do. It’s essential to living a life well lived.

How the Happiest Kids in the World Celebrate Their Birthdays

13 April 2017

happiest-kids-birthday-party

Children’s birthday parties carry a lot of emotional baggage for parents across the pond.Where I come from, parents, especially moms, are expected to throw the perfect birthday bash for the special snowflake(s) in their life. This includes intensive planning at least three months ahead, picking a theme, coming up with giveaways, entertainment and spending a fortune. There’s even a market for children’s event designers who go beyond just being party planners because they create custom experiences rather than generic events. This is all based on the premise that we want our precious bundle of joy to feel loved on his special day. And of course, in the air is that unspoken “friendly” mompetition. Whether the pressure is self-imposed, culturally expected, or an unhealthy mix of both, a lot of parents are under pressure to execute the perfect birthday party.
When did children’s birthday parties transform into these elaborate affairs? How did we actually get here? I readily bought into the idea that the more neurotic I was about all the imaginable details of my child’s birthday party, the more I could prove to my child and the world how much I loved him. It simply became second nature to me.

 

Rather, there’s a lot of anxiety, fear of disappointing their child, and being judged by other parents. No wonder that for many, modern parenting has become all joy and no fun.

 

So when I discovered that middle-class Dutch parents are still throwing birthday parties reminiscent of the 1970s and 80s, I was intrigued and to be honest, a bit hesitant. A child’s birthday party here still consists of cake, maybe a few snacks, a couple of presents under €15 and the chance for the kids to run around. After my oldest son’s first birthday party extravaganza (a Nijntje theme affair with over hundred people in the Chapel hall of the Utrecht Central Museum, complete with a catered buffet of 12 courses and a dessert bar), I started to have a change of heart. He’s a highly sensitive boy who prefers the more intimate setting of a Dutch birthday party – cozy and in the comfort of his own home. And if I was really honest with myself, the party was more to fulfill my aspirations of becoming a domestic goddess.

 

Now that I’m a working mom of two, I just don’t have the time and energy to go all out either. Not to forget to mention that most of our disposable income goes towards rent, food, and clothes.

 

Here are Some Tips on How to Throw a Classic (Dutch) Children’s Birthday Party


Limit the number of guests to the child’s age
It might initially seem a bit heartless not to invite the entire class and all the neighborhood kids, but keeping the number of guests small is guaranteed way of ensuring a down-to-earth, low-key affair. Also, the guests spend no more than ten euros on a gift, so there’s no competition or pressure there.

Limit the number of hours
Two hours of celebrating are more than enough. The idea is not to make it exhausting and overwhelming for the child.

Flag banners for decorations
Either make them yourself with your child or invest in some good quality flag banners that you can use for future parties (and other celebrations). For the Dutch, nothing screams “birthday” like hanging a flag banner.

Procure a cake and don’t forget the birthday candles
Either bake a cake with your child or allocate the cake baking to the local cake expert. A lot of children love baking, and you’re creating memories with them.

Sing Happy Birthday and blow out the candles

This is the anticipated highlight of any children’s birthday party – the Happy Birthday song and blowing out the candles. It’s really that simple. It’s worth mentioning that the Dutch have an affinity for getting into a circle formation whenever they get together. I suspect it’s intentionally done to make sure everyone feels included.

Bonus points
Dutch school teachers traditionally make the children paper birthday crowns. The kids love them because it makes them feel like royalty for the day (as seen in the picture above). You can make it a family tradition too!

 

The moral of the story is that children’s birthday parties should be something that we all look forward to without anxiety. If you’re one of the perfect moms of the internet and have the privilege of time, energy, and financial resources at your disposal – rock on with your budding Martha Stewart self! I’d love to follow you on Instagram (seriously!). But if you are lacking in some of these areas, or just simply can’t be bothered, keep in mind that low-key birthday parties are how the happiest kids in the world celebrate their special day.
Regardless of how you decide to celebrate your child’s special day, what’s most important is that your child knows that she is loved.  A great way is by focusing on the aspects of togetherness, and letting your child know how much they mean to you. The goal is to make it a gezellig atmosphere – an untranslatable Dutch word that embodies the feeling one gets when they feel love, and a special connection with others around them. A simple hug, the words “I love you,” and “Happy Birthday” go a long way. And I’m convinced that’s what children remember the most…

The Happiest Kids in the World Update

9 April 2017

TheExperimentHappiestKids

 

Hello everyone! It’s been crazy, hectic and wonderful behind the scenes lately. Our book “The Happiest Kids in the World” is now available the United States, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and thirty plus other countries! Suffice to say; the Dutch parenting trend has gone international!

The chances that you might be a new visitor because of all the recent press are also pretty high! If you are visiting for the first time, welcome and have a seat! Feel free to look at past articles that we’ve written exploring parenting in the Netherlands. For starters, here is our first post that resonated deeply with parents around the world: The 8 Secrets of Dutch Kids, the Happiest Kids in the World.
Michele and I are excited to share some exciting news! We’re going to bring our message to the US!
San Francisco Bay Area

Tuesday, April 18, 2017, at 6:15 pm
San Francisco Bernal Heights Library
500 Cortland Street
San Francisco, 94110
Register for the waitlist here
https://www.eventbrite.com/e/naf-norcal-book-presentation-of-the-happiest-kids-in-the-world-tuesday-april-18-2017-at-615pm-tickets-32853681245
Saturday, April 22, 2017, at 11:30 am
The Reading Bug
785 Laurel Street
San Carlos, CA 94070
United States
Register here

***both San Francisco Bay Area events graciously hosted by the American Friends of the Mauritshuis and the Netherland-America Foundation
Washington D.C.

Saturday, April 29, 2017, at 1:00 pm
Politics and Prose
5015 Connecticut Ave NW Washington DC 20008
No registration required. Seating is available on a first come, first served basis. Click here for more info.


New York
and Philadelphia dates and locations to be announced in the near future.
Thank you for all the love, support and encouragement you have given Michele and me throughout the years. We appreciate every kind message on Facebook, Instagram, email, and tweet. We look forward to continuing blogging about our Dutch reality shortly!
Warmest wishes,
Rina Mae and Michele

p.s. Every single review helps a long way in spreading the word about Dutch parenting. If you can find a spare moment to write a sentence or two on Amazon.com, it would help us out tremendously!

p.p.s. If you like to procrastinate and to waste some time on the internet, join us on our Facebook page.

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

dick-bruna-child-perspective-1

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.

dick-bruna-child-perspective-3

 

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

 

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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!