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

5 January 2017

Why I Moved to Dutchland

photo by Gelya Bogatishcheva

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

13 December 2016

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

My Dutch Life: Maaike Koning

9 December 2016

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

How long have you been a photographer?

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

Was it difficult to find work at first?

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

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Have you been influenced by any other Dutch photographers? 

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

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

What do you think makes a good photographer?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What are the main challenges of raising kids in Holland?

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

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

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

 

All photos (c) Maaike Koning, 2016

 

 

The Art of Crafting Dutch Surprises

1 December 2016


One of the skills I never thought I’d need so much as a wannabee Dutch parent is crafting. Growing up in England in the seventies and eighties, I did plenty of arts and crafts stuff as a kid. My mother went through a hippy phase of teaching me and my brother to collect, spin and weave wool (she still has the spinning wheel at home), to craft corn-dollies out of straw (truly hideous things which attracted mites!) and to sew and knit. At school, we made arts and crafts projects out of toilet rolls and crepe paper. But I never expected these crazy skillz to equip me for my kid’s childhood in the new century.
        Glue and coloured paper and crappy-looking creations are a major part of Dutch day-care and primary school. Both the Dutch childminders we have had, have spent the majority of their time knutselen – a handy Dutch verb for doing craftwork – with the kids too. And they’ve loved it. They’ve done more than I ever did as a kid, despite my seventies-style mum. My daughter is currently a big fan of origami and can spend hours in the kitchen making little birds. It’s got to be preferable to spending hours on the iPad (her other main ‘hobby’).

        The parenting crafting challenge comes in the autumn in Holland. First there’s St Maarten’s Day on 11th November which requires a home-made lantern. (St Maarten, patron saint of Utrecht and Groningen – aka Saint Martin of Tours – was a Hungarian-born bishop who famously donated half of his cloak to a beggar.) The children go from door to door, singing songs as they hold their paper lanterns aloft, and collecting sweets. The lanterns are relatively easy to make and don’t require much adult intervention, thank God. Here’s what Ina made on her own this year.


The real test is Sinterklaas (celebrated on 5th December) when children draw lots at school to see who will make a ‘surprise’ for a fellow classmate. A surprise is basically a fantasy holder for a hidden gift (worth no more than €3,50 according to the brief). But if you’d never seen one, your eyes would pop out at the array of expert-looking DIY animals, computers, play stations, sports paraphernalia et al displayed in the class on the day the surprises get handed it. To a foreign parent, it is a truly daunting sight. How the hell do the kids make these things? And how the hell do their parents know how to help them? Checking out Pinterest will give you an idea of the skill and complexity I’m talking about.
         

             The first year I just let my son wing it on his own. He made a cardboard climbing wall covered in little modelling clay penguins that looked really cute to me, but somehow didn’t fit in with what the other kids had made. It wasn’t “boxy” enough, a fellow parent tipped me off. The next year he made a cardboard guitar and then it was my daughter’s turn. A skipping rope with massive handles fashioned out of papier-mâché covered balloons and toilet rolls and then painted, looked pretty credible. The gift was hidden in one of the handles. Last year she made a house and a garden on top of a cardboard box base and the girl who she gave it to couldn’t hide her disappointment. “You can always tell which kids have foreign parents,” I heard one mum murmur. I’d finally found the one area of parenting where Dutch parents seemed a little competitive.

           

              And so this year, in her last year of primary school, Ina is determined to ‘win’ at surprise-making. It’s her last chance to make a splash and so it’s been all hands on deck. She decided to make a life-sized dog with a football out of chicken wire and papier-mâché. The gift would be hidden inside the ball. I spent an entire day consulting Dutch parents, googling and purchasing chicken wire, tape and wallpaper paste. At the weekend, we put on our gloves and attempted to bend bits of wire into the shape of a dog, based on a drawing of a friendly-looking dog Ina had found online. It took hours and was one of the most difficult things I’d ever attempted in my life (in craft terms). Just getting the dog to stand on all four legs took us about an hour and a half.

           

                Trying to ignore the fact that it looked like a pig with a long tail, we covered the frame in papier-mâché and left it to dry – which took three days, there was so much glue! (We always do this kind of stuff in the bathroom to make clearing up easier). Then Ina painted everything with acrylic paints and this is the result. It’s not too bad but will her classmate like it? And will anyone comment on her non-Dutch mum?

Falling for the Hatchimal Craze: Parenting Fail

25 November 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting to Grips with Dutch Grades

23 November 2016

 

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Of all the things expat parents have to get used to in the Netherlands, coming to terms with the bizarre Dutch grading system is one of the toughest. Especially because of the tendency all of us Anglos have to convert what look like marks out of ten into percentages.

First of all, the two systems don’t align at all, and second, it’s harder to get a basic pass grade in Holland than in the US or UK. Third, it’s actually pretty rare to get the equivalent of an A here. So those of us expat parents who have grown up in a culture of As and A+s are in for a shock. (Incidentally, Dutch kids applying for foreign university places can also suffer from the same mental error when those universities try to convert 6s into Cs, 7s into Bs and 8s into As.)

I’ll try to explain the basics first and if I get this right, you’ll realize that Dutch people famously ‘settling’ for a passing grade (6) isn’t what it looks like at all.  

A 6 is a voldoende – satisfactory. Anything lower is an onvoldoende – unsatisfactory (note the term ‘fail’ isn’t used; also, a 5.5 average can also counts as a pass because of a loophole – anything above a half is rounded up to the next full figure at the end of the year). A 7 is good, and an 8 is very good. Anything higher than an eight is still very good, the highest is a ten, but no distinction is made between an 8, 9 or a 10 since getting an 8 already is considered achievement enough.

Now here’s the catch. A 6 isn’t a 6/10. It doesn’t mean your child got 6 questions right and 4 questions wrong. For tests, the teachers usually deduct points (or half-points) for errors from a starting score of 10, rather than adding up questions answered correctly. Emrys, who teaches English HAVO/VWO at a Rotterdam secondary school explains:

“Dutch grading is a complicated thing. Most teachers tell their pupils how many mistakes equals a point off. How many it is depends on the length of the test. Our English department tries to calculate the grade on smaller tests so that a 6 is equal to about 80% correct. On larger tests we usually strive for 70-75% is equal to a six.

When grading essays or letters or other assignments, we usually work with a correction form adding up to a certain amount of points. On a writing assignment I just corrected, the students could earn 14 points. So 14 points was a 10, 13 a 9, 12 a 8 and so on.”

So 80%, an English or American A, could equal a basic pass in the Dutch grading system. If your child is coming home with 6s, he or she is already doing very well indeed by foreign standards! My son has repeatedly told me how strict the marking system is – you should see my face drop when he gets a 5 or a 6 –  I should really listen to him.dutch-grading-system-2For a bit more information, I talked to a Dutch friend Heidi, who has taught across all the different types of secondary school levels from VMBO to VWO. The first point she made is that there is no national curriculum in the Netherlands and there are no agreements between schools about grading. What they do have is kerndoelen – key objectives which should be taught in the lessons. The same applies to primary and secondary education. Usually there are agreements within a school about standards and norms and how much certain tests count towards a final score. She also explained that different types of tests are differently weighted and the tests where students simply have to reproduce information are marked more stringently than those which require interpretation and application of what they have learned.

 

N.B. Rina and I wrote The Happiest Kids in the World  based on our own experiences of raising our children here. My son’s first couple of months of secondary school are covered in the last chapter, but I didn’t have enough experience to write much about grades (there hadn’t even been any at our primary school).

Rent-An-Oma

6 October 2016

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“Oma Mieke, Oma Mieke” exclaims my four year old son Julius. “Let’s go to the boerderij (farm) to pick up some eggs and then the bakery to pick up croissants. Then you can make me lunch!”

 

Julius is on his bike on our driveway, restless and impatient while sixty-two year-old Mieke bundles up his one year-old brother Matteo in his stroller.

 

She hands Matteo a package of baby cookies which Matteo gobbles up happily.

 

“Okay, no problem.” responds Mieke. “Rina, we’re headed out. Be back soon!”

 

Mieke isn’t our children’s biological Oma (grandmother). Rather, she is our version of a Rent-an-Oma – a surrogate grandmother to watch our children for a couple hours during the week. She is my secret to how I get any writing done.

 

I was actually inspired by this idea when I lived in the sleepy, retirement community of Doorn. Everywhere around us were Dutch people of sixty years and older. They would often stop us – at the local Albert Heijn grocery store or the playground in the woods – to chat and admire the boys.

 

And of course, there were also lots of grandparents either toting their grandchildren around at the weekly farmer’s market, visiting the local zoo, or simply out on the sidewalks pushing babies in strollers and chasing after toddlers on their walking bicycles.

 

Often referred to as Omadag (though Dutch grandfathers are just as hands on and involved), many Dutch grandparents dedicate a day or two a week to help care for their grandchildren. It’s the Dutch version of the modern day village, and the Dutch take it to heart. The ideal childcare structure in Holland comprises of the responsibility spread out during the week. For example, when Michele’s children were young, her mother-in-law would take the kids a day a week, her husband Martijn on his alternate Fridays off, and she’d take them for two days and the rest went to créche.
It’s a healthy mix  allowing children to develop meaningful relationships with their grandparents but not becoming too much of a burden. Even the Dutch government fully supported the idea of Oma and Opa involvement, And I have the sneaking suspicion it’s one of the reasons why Dutch children are so happy.

 

As a Dutch-American family, we are not in the privileged position to have grandparents live nearby, or who are not interested in taking care of their grandchildren a once a week.  So why not just “Rent-an-Oma”? There seemed to be a lot of older Dutch grandmotherly types who took  a lot of joy in being with my children and I obviously needed help.

 

Apparently, my brilliant the idea of “Rent-an-Oma” was already fashionable two to three years ago – you can either have a Oma nanny or even adopt an Oma.  And the Dutch government was behind the idea, even providing a subsidy for Omas and Opas who are registered as guest parents.

 

I couldn’t, however, just invite any stranger to my house of course – careful screening, a list of requirements of what we wanted,  interviews and background checks had to be conducted. When we found Mieke, we wished we had done it sooner. As a former kindergarten teacher and a nanny with over twenty-five years experience, Mieke is the Dutch Mary Poppins of our dreams (yes, she also sings). Her  authoritative but kind handling of the children and overall love for toddlers and babies puts our mind at ease.

 

The idea of Rent-an-Oma is more than just hiring a nanny, a babysitter or even an au pair. It’s about hopefully fostering a lifelong connection with someone who can pass down their own wisdom and culture to the next generation. It’s about sharing with my children stories from the past, of continuing the oral tradition of stories that will enrich my children’s imagination. And it’s about creating our own village, of being honest with ourselves that we cannot continue to parent alone and need the support of kind souls around us.

 

There’s been a lot of interest in the news lately about how the Dutch and even Americans incorporating their elderly population into modern day society. There is the story about college students living in retirement homes and even a preschool program that’s part of a nursing home.

 

My own friends who heard about my rent-a-oma experience on Facebook were quite positive. One friend enthusiastically responded, “Holy sh*t. I want a Rent-a-Oma here. In fact, I once made a joke about how may I should have tried to rent a grandparent.”


Let’s consider making Rent-an-Oma a trend around the world.

 

P.S. Did you know we have a book called The Happiest Kids in the World? If you live in the UK, you can pre-order a copy! (For American and other international readers, please wait till our American publishers gives us more info!) Thank you for the continued love and support.

The Happiest Kids in the World, Bringing Up Children the Dutch Way

5 September 2016

HappiestKidsBook

It’s time to fess up. We’ve been keeping something from you. Nothing bad. We haven’t cheated on you or anything, but we thought it best to wait until everything was official. We’ve written a book and it’s called The Happiest Kids in the World: Bringing up children the Dutch way. The British edition is now available for pre-order on Amazon. Doubleday UK commissioned the book, Dutch rights have been sold to Nijgh & Van Ditmar for publication in the spring, and we have an American publisher too – The Experiment who do cool non-fiction books. They’ll be publishing next spring too.

As expats bringing up our kids here – Rina Mae Acosta is American and Michele Hutchison is British – we realized that something truly wonderful was going on. UNICEF had already confirmed our suspicions: according to the Child Well-Being Studies, the Dutch are raising the happiest children in the world. We’re talking about well-adjusted and healthy kids who rate themselves happy, get on well with their friends and parents and enjoy school. . . And these children have managed to come top the two times the comprehensive study into childhood happiness was conducted.

What exactly are Dutch parents doing differently? Could it really just be all the hagelslag, chocolate sprinkles, that Dutch kids eat for breakfast? Or perhaps it’s because of the chilled-out Dutch babies who sleep through the night and the under ten crowd who are free to play after school because they have no homework. And why isn’t anyone else making a fuss about this? Shouldn’t more parents know about this parenting style that’s actually working?

 

happiestkids-2

 

So we put our heads together to figure out exactly why Dutch children are rated the happiest kids in the world.

 

 

In the meantime, come join us on our Facebook page. And if you’d like to support us in letting more people know about our book, please do.

Is it normal…? Parenting a Puppy Part 2

27 May 2016

parenting-puppy-part-two

 “Maaike did an amazing job taking this photo. Like small children, puppies are in constant motion”

© Maaike Koning http://www.maaikekoning.nl/

 

In my last blog post  I wrote that puppies were now being raised using what are essentially positive parenting techniques. Bad behaviour should be ignored and good behaviour reinforced with praise. I figured it might be easier with a dog than a child since you might not lose your temper so easily – we have lower expectations for dogs than kids (note to self: return to this in a later blog!).  We’ve had the puppy for a month now and ignoring bad behaviour has been the first thing to go out of the window. Positive parenting puppy failure #1. The thing is there are limits, if there’s one word you need with a young puppy, it’s a resounding ‘no!’. This is primarily for reasons of safety – both the puppy’s and your own. Gnawing at electricity cables. No. Biting limbs and extremities. No. Tearing the clothes off your body. No. There are some activities that just have to be stopped right away. I can take away a cushion and give the dog a toy to chew on instead, but when its teeth are sunk into your kid’s arm, it’s another story.

There is some less desirable behaviour that can be ignored. Taking a puppy out for a walk is like going somewhere with a two-year-old. They’re distracted by everything, want to run off all over the place and alternate between racing along as fast as they can and stopping, lying down and refusing to move. They also pick up everything they see, from dirty tissues and random litter to pen tops and plastic bags containing other dog’s poos. When my daughter Ina was two, she wanted to be carried everywhere. She wasn’t keen on walking. My friend Caroline taught me what she called ‘the boring hold’. Have the child walk and when she whines ‘carrryyyy’,  pick her up and just stand there waiting until she asks to be put down again so you can actually go somewhere. When Pippa lies down and refuses to move, I employ the boring hold technique by turning away from her and standing very still. So far it’s been working.

Another thing about being a first-time owner that is reminiscent of being a first-time parent is that gnawing anxiety about not knowing stuff. ‘Shit, someone left me in charge of a puppy and I’m not fit for the purpose’ is what flashes through my head when I have to do something complicated like take the puppy with me to a work meeting that includes getting buses and the metro. Travel plus being in charge of a small, helpless being is right up there in my list of nightmare scenarios. Anxiety also causes a lot of frenzied online googling. ‘Is it normal for my girl puppy to have something that looks like a willy?’ (the answer was yes, she’ll grow into it. Weird, right?). ‘Is it normal for my puppy’s poop to be a different colour every time?’ Sure.

And then there’s the mad hour she has at a different time every day. A friend who’s a bit of an animal activist and against pedigree dogs (he works at Varkens in Nood – which is like a Dutch pig rescue charity) happened to mention ‘rage syndrome’ or Sudden Onset Aggression which can affect Golden Retrievers and other family-friendly breeds like Spaniels and Labradors.  Apparently, they suddenly go all mental and bitey and there’s nothing you can do about it. Pippa’s mad hour looks a bit like sudden onset aggression, the whites of her eyes appear, she races around with her ears flat to her head and jumps up nipping at everything in a total frenzy. Googling didn’t help assuage my concerns but last night at puppy training, Martijn learned it was normal puppy behaviour. Thank God for that.

One final thing I’ve learned this month is let sleeping dogs lie. It’s when they’re at their sweetest, plus it’s the only time you can get some rest (or work done).

 

Parenting a Dutch Puppy

10 May 2016

One day my husband woke up and decided he wanted a puppy. This was the man who’d always said ‘over my dead body’. My son had gone around telling people, ‘When daddy dies, we’re going to get a dog.’ Well daddy’s not dead but he might be having a teensy-weensy midlife crisis.‘Better than a motorbike’ friends keep saying. But a motorbike doesn’t pee and chew up everything in your house. And barking is a bit like revving. I stalled for a few months but he really, really did want a dog and so now we’ve got Pippa, an eleven-week-old golden retriever. The kids are over the moon.

 

Perhaps Martijn was feeling nostalgic for the days of clearing up shit and vomit and being in charge of something small and helpless. Ben and Ina are 11 and 9 and, having grown up here in the Netherlands, remarkably independent and self-sufficient. Ben gets up in the morning, makes his lunch and takes himself off to school. He also makes his own way to his dance lessons three times a week. The Dutch have a saying ‘Je hebt er geen kind aan’ (literally ‘it’s not like having a child’) which can be used for many different situations but basically means ‘it’s/he’s no bother’. Very appropriate here. And Ina has just started cycling to and from school independently too. As a freelancer, it means I rarely leave the house anymore, which is quite good because when it’s not sleeting it’s hailing (this week’s heatwave aside).

 

Only now I’ll have to go out every two hours during the day to take the new baby for a toilet stop. It’s slightly better than changing nappies, but bagging up doggy poop isn’t much fun either.  I’ve started comparing puppies and babies and here are my findings so far:

 

Raising a Dutch Puppy

parenting puppy

Friends of ours who got a puppy last year tipped us off that rearing dogs had evolved in the same way as rearing children. It is all positive parenting and no punishment these days. Like with the positive parenting method so popular in the Netherlands, the word ‘no’ has been banished from the carer’s vocabulary. Undesirable behaviour should be redirected into desirable behaviour, i.e. give the puppy something else to chew on. And ignore barking.

It’ll be interesting to see how well this works – ignoring bad behaviour and praising good behaviour. I get the feeling it’ll be slightly easier with a dog than with a child. There’s less at stake and it might be easier not to lose your temper. We’ll see. Martijn and Ben have already signed up for puppy school

 

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