My Dutch Life: Netherlands vs South Africa

21 April 2017
Maya

I recently spent a week in Cape Town, South Africa where enthusiasm for The Happiest Kids in the World was overwhelming. I was interviewed for various magazines and given a lot of air-time on the radio. Rina gave some interviews too, by remote. The journalists and parents I spoke to all admitted to being overwhelmed by the current parenting culture. The country is still divided with a massive gap between rich and poor. Affluent parents tend to be overprotective due to the climate of fear, schools are apparently strict and old-fashioned in their teaching methods, and children have very little freedom as a result. Parents from poorer communities struggle with social inequality and cling on to the idea that tough discipline will prepare their children for the real world.

I interviewed Karmen van Rensburg, a South African designer married to a Dutchman about her life as a mother there.
Karm and Maya


First tell me a bit about yourself and how you grew up. What kind of school did you go to? Were your parents strict? Could you roam freely, play outside etc?

I was born in Port Elizabeth, a seaside town in the Eastern cape. We had a large house, garden and a pool – like most middle class people in the area. Both my parents worked full time, so I was looked after by a black woman called Nellie, who lived with us and whom I adored. I went to an English creche (we are Afrikaans speaking) and I remember that being alienating. I completed grade one in an Afrikaans goverment school called (horror): Hendrik Verwoerd. The architect of Apartheid. My parents were very liberal, but that was the system we grew up in.

When I was 7 we moved to a small town in Zululand, Empangeni. There I attended 2 different government schools (we moved house) and I liked the second one. It was special in that the teachers focused more on individual and cultural development than the average government school. They even had optional extramural classes about Archaeology in grade 3! I was neither sporty nor competitive so I flourished here. We had a huge unkept tropical double garden with countless fruit trees, strange lizards, chickens, rabbits and a dog. We ‘roamed free’ in our garden and at friends’ houses. My parents were not strict but politically it was a very tense and violent time in the country, especially in Zululand where we lived, and my mother, a journalist, was extremely anxious.

When I was 9 we moved to Johannesburg, where I stayed until I completed high school.  I passionately hated both my Afrikaans mainstream primary and high-schools. High school was huge, with ugly uncomfortable uniforms, sports-obsessed, competitive, strict, racist and extremely conservative. It was definitely no place for non-conformists or even individuals. Life besides school was good though – we lived in suburbia and played and cycled in the streets there, although not completely carefree – always aware of possible danger – in Johannesburg crime was picking up rapidly.

My marks were good, and in high school I rebelled by bunking school as often as possible. I got away with it mostly – we lived close to the school and I (often with a brave friend) would just return home after my parents went to work. We would take the bus to Hillbrow for the day, or hang out in the park. In my last school year, I was absent almost as many days as being present. A record I was proud of. The teachers turned a blind eye or gave up on me, didn’t care. My parents were largely unaware.

What a waste of an education! The irony is I loved to read, and learn. But the way lessons were presented by mostly unenthusiastic, frustrated teachers and the way we were treated and the pressure of conforming brought out the worst in my teenage self.


Your daughter was born in the Netherlands so you had some experience of child-raising there and now you’re back in South Africa with her. What are some of the cultural differences?

In Amsterdam where I lived, motherhood is percieved as an adventure to be enjoyed, the moms I knew where relaxed, took it in their stride. It helped tremendously to be able to work part-time – as an art director it’s unheard of in SA. Family-life in Netherlands seems to be valued by society and the workforce – even fathers get to spend time with their children. An ideal society to raise a child.

Sadly, in South Africa, work-life is much more intense, faster, more cut throat as there’s more at stake (there are no social grants, the unemployement rate is 27%). The economy and politics are volatile. Crime is rife. Having a baby is more of a handicap, a spanner in the works.

For the middle class, there is rarely ouma / oupa days, (IF they live close by, they’re often still working). ATV days don’t exist and both parents mostly work full time. The child goes to daycare 5 days a week, or stays at home with a nanny. In the townships and poorer communities, they stay with the unemployed family member or grandparent. It must seem really bizarre that I chose to return!


What are the main challenges of raising children in South Africa?

For a start, earning enough money for school fees. The quality of the education system has declined rapidly. Private schools are expensive and often elitist. Crime & safety is a real issue. There’s definitely no ‘roaming the streets’ anymore. Rape statistics are among the higest in the world. Here we either live on the edge, or if you’re wealthy, in a bubble.

Teaching your child about justice in a corrupt and very unjust society is a huge personal challenge.


The schools seem really strict from what your daughter told me. Why is that? Do you see any benefits?

I suppose it’s the only way that they know to try and create discipline.Teachers are underpaid and stretched thin. Many of the rules are just petty though and make no sense to me at all. I can see the benefits of wearing uniforms in an unequal society, although I don’t see why they need to be so formal and uncomfortable.
We have enrolled her in a lovely Montessori school on a farm and are on the waiting list.

The school she’s in now is in an affluent area, and I think some wealthy children probably benefit indirectly from the standardisation and strict rules, to keep them from becoming too entitled…

 

karm and alf

How the Happiest Kids in the World Celebrate Their Birthdays

13 April 2017

happiest-kids-birthday-party

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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


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

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

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

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

Sing Happy Birthday and blow out the candles

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

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

 

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

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.

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

work-life-balance-dutch-dads

 

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

maaike-koning-1

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.

maaike-koning-2

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.

maaike-koning-3

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

parenting-fail-hatchimal

 

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

 

dutch-grading-system-3

 

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

rent-an-oma

 

“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.