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 

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

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…

My Dutch Life – A Dutch Girl in London

10 April 2017

london-2

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 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 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.

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!