Dutch Parenting in New York

3 July 2017

Manon and her Dutch-American children

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

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

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

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

 

Manon’s Downtown mother support group in 2004

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

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

The Simple Message Behind Miffy, the Beloved Dutch Character

14 June 2017

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

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

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

 

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

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


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

 

 

An Interview with an English Dad Blogger

2 June 2017

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

Let’s first introduce you to our readers…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are attitudes to hands-on dads changing much?

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

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

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

What is your next parenting goal?

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

How could British parents adopt a more Dutch parenting approach?

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

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

Reclaiming Summer Vacation, the Dutch Way

1 June 2017

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

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

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

 

Embracing low-cost, down-to-earth activities

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

Some suggestions are:

Camping

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

Playing Tourist in Your Homebase

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

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

 

Embracing Boredom

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

 

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

 

Dutch Gezelligheid

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

 

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


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

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

 

 

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

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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