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.

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