Dutch Parenting in New York

3 July 2017

Manon and her Dutch-American children

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

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

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

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

 

Manon’s Downtown mother support group in 2004

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

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

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.”

 

 

An Interview with an English Dad Blogger

2 June 2017

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

Let’s first introduce you to our readers…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are attitudes to hands-on dads changing much?

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

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

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

What is your next parenting goal?

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

How could British parents adopt a more Dutch parenting approach?

We should just simplify family life and enjoy spending time together. I for one am guilty of over-thinking family time and planning extravagant and expensive outings, that whilst lovely, aren’t always necessary. Time just spent simply enjoying each other’s company could be even more fun and importantly, rewarding for the children.
Follow Jamie here:
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Facebook: @adayinthelifedad
Twitter: @dayinthelifedad

And fellow mum or dad bloggers from around the world – we’d love to exchange thoughts and experiences with you too, so do write in.

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 

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 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

 

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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!

Gezelligheid vs Hygge

9 January 2017

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

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

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

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