Finding Dutchland’s Party of Five

4 December 2018

I’m proud to announce the birth of our third child. In true Dutch fashion, she has more than one name. Four to be precise. Introducing our newest addition to Finding Dutchland – Eleanor Marie Julia Amor.

Our transition from being a family of four to a party of five was a smooth one. I was initially nervous because the internet warned that moms of three are most stressed than those with any number of kids. Eleven weeks into this role as a mom of three and I’m loving it. There are even moments when I suffer from a spark of madness and entertain the idea of having just one more. Even my husband is crazy enough to consider it.  

I suspect it’s because we’ve decided to go Dutch when it comes to parenting our kids. Apparently, at least according to my own non-scientific opinion and biased experience, going Dutch is the ultimate game-changer. The moment we brought our dearest Ella home from the hospital, there were two words that came to our mind: “Rest and regularity”.

Rest means to create a calm, nurturing environment with plenty of opportunities to sleep, relax and take it easy. We created a supportive, hands-on village to provide support in the early days. For us, it meant having my retired father stay for a couple of weeks. There was also Rhada, my insurance-subsidized kraamverzorgster (maternity nurse) and lactation consultant who was there to take care of not only our baby and assist me in establishing a breastfeeding relationship with Ella but also to be a surrogate mother to me. It makes a tremendous difference to have an extra pair of hands, or two to help with daily household chores, give extra attention to the older two children, and provide emotional support and encouragement.

 

Regularity shouldn’t be confused with creating a rigid schedule. Anyone knows that having a newborn means to expect the unexpected. The first few weeks are all about nursing, burping, diaper changes, sleep, rinse and repeat. Within the irregularity of newborn life, we created a loose routine that involved a daily walk, trip to the grocery store, and simply cuddling and nursing in bed. Eventually, baby and mother will get into a rhythm. As baby gets older, it gets easier to create a general routine for the day, with time for self-care.

My husband Bram and I are determined to make our lives as boring, predictable and as simple as possible, keeping in mind the mantra “rest and regularity”. It really does help with our baby’s sleep and having happy, well-adjusted children.  If you’re curious to learn more, my co-author Michele Hutchison and I wrote an entire book about it. If you’re into a bit of harmless internet stalking, check us out on Instagram.

 

 

Photos courtesy of Elma Coetzee

An American Immigrant in Holland

18 July 2018

There is nothing like the anticipation of a new baby and the Fourth of July that inspires an American immigrant in Holland like me to do some soul-searching and re-evaluation of life choices. My Dutch husband and I even entertained the idea of moving back to the United States. And as much as I was homesick (thanks pregnancy hormones), to my surprise, I hesitated. I’ve fallen in love with life in this obscure Northern Western European country.

I’m proud to be an American. I am aware of the price paid for the privilege of possessing an American passport: my parents left the Philippines to pursue the conventional promise of material success and a meritocracy. I’m also a firm believer that one can be profoundly affected by the current horrors experienced in America while also remaining hopeful that things can change for the better.

And if there’s anything I learned from life in general, it is to think critically, advocate for improvement and provide some alternative solutions to accomplish it. So in the spirit of America’s birthday, here are some aspects of Dutch life that may inspire my fellow Americans to help live their best life:

 

An Effective Model Healthcare System

According to the most recent ranking of healthcare systems conducted by the Commonwealth Fund, the Netherlands is among the top three countries for healthcare. Ironically, the United States government and people spend considerably the most, ranks at the very bottom. One can thank a lack of insurance coverage, administrative inefficiency, and underperforming primary care as the reasons why U.S. healthcare is a hot mess.

 

As someone who hasn’t had the best of luck when it comes to health (hello high-risk pregnancy number 3!), there is a lot of comfort and security living in a country that provides compassionate and affordable healthcare on the premise of universal health care coverage.

 

A bonus: nowhere in the world is there anything like the Dutch postpartum maternity system (kraamverzorgsters). There are similar programs in the United Kingdom and Germany, but none go as far as nurturing the postpartum mother in need of tender, love, and care. Not only do they monitor the physical well-being of mother and child, but they also help with light household chores, take care of older children, and prepare meals.

 

A Safe Learning Environment for All Children

A popular book circulating among my American mommy friends is “I’m Not Scared, I’m Prepared” by Julia Cook. It’s about what a child should do if a “dangerous someone” is in their school.  I may not have grown up in a stereotypical all-American home (read = immigrant Filipino family) but even I know this cannot be the new normal. Schools should be a safe, nurturing place for children to learn, to explore and to make friends. The biggest concern my Dutch-American six-year-old has is who his playdate will be after school.  

Work-Life Balance

There’s this pervasive idea in America that work-life balance is a myth and that being “busy and stressed out” is not only socially acceptable, but a status symbol to aspire to and a sign that you’re winning at adulting. Yet the Netherlands, a country that is the fourth most competitive in the world according to World Economic Forum,  doesn’t buy into that unhealthy, soul-crushing status quo. Over on this side of the pond, the Dutch believe that a healthy balance between work and life is not only possible but should be normal. The Dutch are proud to work the least amount of hours on the planet and still accomplish an enviable high quality of life.

 

In an article in parents.com, Tina Fey said, “The ideal situation for a parent is one that no one has—having a fulfilling job that requires you to work three days a week. It’s better for the parents because they get to spend time with the children and also have a source of pride and achievement—and income—outside the home.” Ms. Fey, I guarantee you that this does exist. Millions of people in the Netherlands are living this reality.

 

A Less Commercial, Status Conscious Lifestyle

Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of living in Holland is that there is much more focus on being part of a community, of belonging, and less emphasis on status and material success. It’s about enjoying a borrel (Dutch happy hour) after work with friends and colleagues, volunteering at the local sports clubs and schools, eating breakfast and dinner as a family regularly, going out for walks in nature, and making time for yourself to do whatever you please. And as I’ve learned recently when I ended up spontaneously having coffee with ten other school parents in the local café, it’s also about simply showing up and being part of the village.

Growing Up Finnish

9 November 2017

Maailman Onnellisimmat Lapset: Kasvatus hollantiliasittain is the title of our book in Finnish. Google translate gives me ‘World’s Most Happy Children: Breeding by Dutchman’. Rina and I did breed with Dutchmen so it’s not wrong there, I suppose. The book had some lovely press in Finland so I might tentatively say that the Fins are now being inspired by the Dutch. But what I already knew was that the Dutch are inspired by the Finnish. Finland ranked fourth in Unicef’s 2013 table of happy children and has consistently come top in world education tables.

While we were on our book tour, I decided to ask some of the people around us about the way their children were growing up. I was particularly interested in how the education system works given its long-term excellent Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) ratings. A Finnish school opened in Amsterdam a couple of years ago but all I knew about it was that it was very liberal, timetable-free and featured project-based learning.

Aleksi Siltala, our publisher, has two children in their early twenties. He started by explaining that Finnish people have a pessimistic tendency to react “that won’t work out well” to any new ideas. It leads to conservatism and aiming for the safest option. Finnish parents worry about getting their children into the right schools, and there is pressure to succeed. He loves the way the Dutch are more relaxed and teach their kids to be independent. “It seems such a luxury not to be pressured to succeed at school and to be allowed to cycle there,” he said. “Cycling networks are improving in Helsinki, though.”

One of the reasons it’s so important to succeed at school in Finland is because university entrance is incredibly tough and there’s a shortage of places. Only ten percent of applicants get into each university apparently. Parents usually end up hiring private tutors to get their kids through the entrance exams. Aleksi got through himself but not on his first try, and neither did his son. His daughter came to Holland to study. It’s actually very common for Fins to study abroad, sidestepping the admissions hurdle.

We were interviewed for Perhe family magazine by Sanna Sommers who has three children aged 3, 8 and 11. She told us that from the first grade onwards – age 7 and up – Finnish children have traditionally been latchkey kids. It was always considered normal for them to spend three hours alone in the afternoon before their parents returned from work. But attitudes are changing. Her generation thinks that this is scary for the kids and are looking for other alternatives. Now after-school clubs are becoming popular in the cities.

Sanna was very interested in the Dutch approach to sports clubs and hobbies. Hobbies here cause stress for parents and children, she said. “They are expensive and time-consuming because the children have to be driven there. You are also expected to help out – there is compulsory voluntary work as a parent. Children from 7 onwards must have a hobby as a form of self-improvement, and they are not seen as recreation. Sports are competitive and taken very seriously.”

One other Dutch thing she was very charmed by was the idea of post-natal maternity nurses. In Finland, the medical system takes care of a pregnant mother till birth then focusses on the children, like in most western countries.

At Otava, we were interviewed over lunch by Riikka Heinonen, a poet and journalist who explained the Finnish school system. I happened to mention that the one thing my son had found better about English schools than Dutch was school dinners (warm meals at lunchtime). She told me hot school meals were free in Finland for all children, from the first year right until their final year at age 18 or 19. The Fins start the day early at 8am and eat at 11am. School for older children is until 4pm and dinner is often at 4.30pm.

There are no private schools, which was lucky. Earlier in the day I’d heard that discussing money with Fins was a taboo. School is free but you have to pay for books. Primary has six grades and finishes around 1-2pm, middle school three grades and secondary school has three grades. At 15/16 the children are streamed (three years later than in Holland). You need certain grades (8,5/9 out of 10) to go to the top stream and there’s competition for the ‘good schools’. It’s easier to get a place further away but that means more travelling. All children take the same type of exams and core subjects are Swedish, English, Finnish, Maths. Additional subjects are dependent on whether the arts or science option has been taken.

Since our sons are the same age, Riikka and I compared notes on their timetables. Her 13-year-old son has school from 8am to 4pm each day, while mine starts half an hour later. Finnish teenagers have lots of homework but there is much less when they’re younger, which very similar to Holland. My son Ben spends at least an hour a day on homework too, in his third year of secondary. Riikka’s son has drama club on Thursdays from 6-8pm which tires him out. Ben has his bouldering club at the same time, and while he doesn’t tend to do homework on Saturdays, Riikka’s son keeps Sundays free. On the surface, there’s not much difference! Yet something somewhere in the system keeps those Finnish kids at the top of the education tables.The pressure? The tutors? The project-based learning and late streaming? I guess I’ll just have to go back to Finland and do more research!

No Such Thing as Bad Weather: Coping with Winter Blues and SAD

12 October 2017

 

Anyone who has spent some time in the Netherlands realizes that the Dutch, like their northern hemisphere neighbors, have a complicated relationship with the sun. Or more accurately, the lack of consistent sunlight all throughout the year can be downright depressive. The Dutch are avid sun worshippers, taking any chance they can get to sit on a terrace and turn their faces towards the sun, even on days with cool, crisp, bone-cold temperatures. Deep into the winter months, the Dutch start praying under their foggy breaths and complaining out loud in vain for the sun to reappear.

 

Like many around me, autumn and winter in the Netherlands dampen my spirit, making me more socially reclusive, giving me difficulty concentrating, and making me feel anxious and overly sensitive. I indulge more, stuffing myself with Tony’s chocolates while baking apple pies and stewing poached pears.  I also have an insatiable craving for empty calories in the form of bread, pasta, rice, and potatoes, piling on generous portions on my plate. This mild form of malaise is referred to as the winter blues. A more severe form of it is referred to by clinical psychologists as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). It is not an all-or-nothing phenomenon, but a spectrum of emotional and behavioral issues linked to the seasons. And for a minority of people who suffer from SAD, their reality in the deep winter months can be debilitating.

 

It’s important to acknowledge that winter blues and SAD are real and not some fabricated #firstworldproblem. The shortening days and longer nights make it difficult for some to synchronize their circadian clock to the outside world.  

 

The positive news is that places who experience the highest levels of winter blues and SAD are considered, time and time again, to be the happiest countries to live in. After ten years of experiencing this (one of the side-effects of moving to the Low Countries), I’m empowered to slay the winter blues. Here are some coping tips, inspired of course by the pragmatic Dutch approach:

 

 

Recognize the problem

There is a lot of truth to the old age adage that “The first step in solving a problem is recognizing that there is one.” Symptoms of SAD include hopelessness, increased appetite with weight gain, increased sleep, less energy and ability to concentrate, loss of interest in work or other activities, sluggish movements, social withdrawal, unhappiness, and irritability. If you find yourself with some of these feelings, consider going to your general practitioner.

 

Keep It Gezellig

Gezelligheid – the untranslatable Dutch word that embodies feelings of coziness, warmth, belonging and love- helps with coping with the winter blues and SAD.  The emphasis is on human connection. Think of candles, a warm cup of chocolate milk with whipped cream and being surrounded by your nearest and dearest. Call, text, or message a good friend. Try your best not to isolate yourself.

 

Invest in a Light Therapy Lamp

For some people, a light therapy lamp can do wonders to help lessen the symptoms of winter blues and SAD. According to Wirecutter, “Far from being a fringe or ‘alternative’ purported remedy for SAD, light therapy has been clinically shown to work to alleviate symptoms in over 60 studies in serious scientific publications” by helping our bodies stay on a more natural sleep-wake cycle.

 

 

 

 

Get Some Exercise
As Elle from Legally Blonde said, “Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy.”  I’m embarrassed to admit that old school Jillian Michael videos do the trick for me. Twenty minutes of doing some exercise in the comfort of my living room without bracing the cold always make me happier.

 

Eat Healthy
A healthy nutritious diet can definitely help and actually has a strong influence on your overall mood. Consider eating low-impact carbs like unprocessed oats and legumes and high-protein foods to keep the sweet tooth cravings at bay. You really will start feeling better, I promise.

 

Go On a Sun Vacation
This idea was presented to me by my Dutch general practitioner when I was struggling with unexplainable feelings of sadness and irritability my first winter in the Netherlands. She prescribed me a take a two-week trip back home to San Francisco. Other families go on a ski holiday. Winter sun holidays are such a popular alternative among the Dutch that there’s an entire industry dedicated to offering affordable (read =cheap) getaway options.

 

Find Something to Be Passionate About
Full disclosure: The first time I did not experience winter blues while living in the Netherlands was when I was busy co-writing The Happiest Kids in the World. I was way too entrenched in the writing and editing process. Keeping yourself busy with a project that you are genuinely passionate about can really help pass the time and distract you from the reality of living in what seems like perpetual darkness. This autumn and winter, I have my heart set on improving my photography skills.

 

 

 

 

 

p.s. Come join us on our Finding Dutchland page. We promise we’ll provide enough distractions to help you procrastinate.

Photos courtesy of Niels Weiss, Ehud Neuhaus, and Mitchel Lensink.

Apples and Appelmoes

25 September 2017


“Apple tree! Apple! said two-year-old Matteo as he pointed to his older brother Bram who was preoccupied with picking an apple. “Wow….”

 

We were in the middle of an apple orchard on what was a picture- postcard perfect sunny and warm autumn Sunday morning twenty minutes away from home. We even took the scenic route among the cows, horses, corn stalks, and polders to get there.

 

To our utter amazement, rather than violently shaking the tree and branches, our five-year-old Bram was doing what he was instructed to do by the farmers – twisting the apple gently and slowly in such a way that the branches and leaves stay intact. My husband and I couldn’t have been more proud.

 

We spent a good hour just watching the two transfixed by this cherished rite of fall, getting their hands and boots dirty on a simple mission to collect the perfect apple. It was also surprisingly peaceful despite having to jostle through the crowds at the parking lot and entrance. We had an undisturbed lane of apple trees ready for their fruit to be harvested all to ourselves. And at one point, all three of my boys – husband and two sons -were happily eating apples, savoring the taste of freshly plucked fruit straight from the branch.

 

 

Apparently, the custom of recreational apple picking in September isn’t a beloved family tradition among the Dutch passed on from generation to generation. At least, not according to my thirty-eight-year-old husband nor sixty-three-year-old Oma nanny.  Apple picking seems to be a newly adopted tradition here in the Low Countries, possibly inspired by Americans, or the British.

This is quite surprising because apples and all the lovely, delicious treats they make with them –  pies, cakes, beignets, sauces, and jams – are a quintessential part of Dutch cuisine and culture. Dutch-style pancakes aren’t complete without applestroop, a thick, dark, sugary and tangy spread make out of apples. They eat applesauce with everything! I suspect it’s because homemade applesauce is often one of the first foods Dutch babies sample, and never grow out of. And of course, there’s a rich tradition and history of apple cultivation in the Netherlands. Our family’s favorite apple variety and for many people around the world is Elstar, cultivated in the Dutch town of Elst in the 1950s.  

My Dutch husband confessed that when I initially brought up the idea of going apple picking, he envisioned us working alongside farmworkers.  As exhausted as he was from work and desirous of a slow, lazy Sunday morning, he thought it a great opportunity to show our boys the realities of farm life. He was afraid, however, that in reality, it would mean him doing most of the actual physical labor while I took pictures and the boys watched. To his amazement and relief, “apple picking” was a fun, relaxed and wholesome family experience that the boys could actively take part in.

 

 

We left with two full bags – one with Elstars and the other with Goudreinet, a great bargain for only €8 and eight kilograms (eighteen pounds). We have our hearts set on putting these farm-fresh apples to good use: homemade apple pies, apple cakes, applesauce, and plenty of apples to share with friends and neighbors.

 

We look forward to going apple picking every year from now on, come rain or shine.

 

Finding Dutchland’s Recipe for Dutch Appelmoes (Applesauce)

Ingredients

4 apples – peeled, cored and chopped

*Goudreinet apples are the traditionally favored ones among the Dutch. Any crisp and mildly tart variety will suffice.

1 cup of water

*add a little more water if necessary, especially in the end

2 cinnamon sticks

1/3 cup of white sugar

 

Directions

In a medium-sized saucepan, combine apples, water, sugar, cinnamon sticks.

Cover and cook over medium to low heat for about 20 to 30 minutes, or until apples are soft.

Allow to cool and remove cinnamon sticks. If you prefer it soft and creamy, use a food processor or potato masher. If you like it with a bit chunky, it’s ready straight from the pan.

Enjoy!

 

Op Camp – How Dutch Secondary School Kids Learn Grit

16 September 2017


(Photo by Alaric Hartsock )

In The Happiest Kids in the World, we wrote about how Dutch children toughen up by cycling to school and playing sports in all weathers. Things are taken to the next level at secondary school as I recently found out.

The tradition of going away on school camp starts as early as six or seven at primary school. By the time they are teenagers, Dutch children are well used to spending time away from their parents. And not only from their parents, they also have to leave their telephones and all electronic devices home too. Camps are an important step in growing in self-confidence and independence and bonding with classmates in a low-key environment.

I didn’t see the episode of Modern Family in which the mother dumps her oldest child without money or telephone leaving her to find her own way home so she has something to write about on her college application until after Rina had written about it in our book, but I’ve caught up on it since. The daughter gets home alright, but boy she’s mad at her mum. The Dutch have a similar tradition, hilariously called a dropping. (I once had to edit a text written by a Dutch person who’d simply called these ‘droppings’ in English. ) Ben’s third-year camp started with a ‘dropping’.

Having packed a big rucksack with camping gear, Ben set off for school on his bike on Monday morning. The children were taken by coach down to South Limburg, split into groups of four or five and randomly dropped at places in the countryside. They had maps, a compass and one emergency phone in a sealed envelope per group. They were to make their own way to a campsite.

 

Meanwhile, storms were raging all across the country and would continue to rage for the days to come. I spent the time feeling terribly sorry for my son who would be drenched I was sure. I also wondered whether their tents would actually be swept or washed away and how they would deal with that. I wasn’t particularly worried that he wouldn’t cope since at thirteen Ben is strong, hardy and independent. A typical Dutch teenager, as I pride myself.

He duly arrived back on his bike on Wednesday in the late afternoon wearing the same clothes he’d set off in. What was it like? I asked. ‘Oh fun, and also not,’ he said wryly. None of the kids had been very good at putting up the tents and every night they’d all blown down. They hadn’t been able to get them back up in the dark and had simply slept in the collapsed tents. I couldn’t help but laugh at the image this brought to mind. His group had arrived at the campsite within a couple of hours, but other groups hadn’t got there until much later. And they’d also got lost again the next day on a mountain biking ride. At one point, they’d stood waiting for help and a group of teachers had driven past them waving cheerily. They hadn’t been able to get them to stop. Teenagers can look after themselves, if only you give them the chance.

‘Oh, Mum,’ Ben said then. ‘I was the only one not to be taken to school and collected in the car, with all this heavy stuff, you know.’

‘Oops,’ I said. ‘Sometimes it’s hard to know just how Dutch I should be.’

 

A Note from Yours Truly (And Speaking Event)

13 September 2017

event

Hey Finding Dutchland friends and followers,

I can’t believe it’s Fall already! How has everyone been? When I started blogging in 2012, I had no idea that the ideas jotted down on Finding Dutchland would eventually lead to a book. What was evident, however, was that parents around the world all have a common desire to raise happy, self-aware, independent children. And it happens that the Netherlands is accomplishing this en masse.  To provide a complete story of parenting in the Netherlands, as well as adding another (British) perspective, Michele Hutchison came to join me.

 

As a foreigner raising two young kids in the Netherlands and married to a Dutch entrepreneur, it wasn’t all that easy co-writing my first book. The actual writing happened six weeks after I gave birth to my second son Matteo. And it had to be written in six months. It was a whirlwind experience, and staying true to my words about raising “the happiest kids in the world” – there wasn’t that much time to blog.  

Now that the intense book writing phase is long over, interviews with the press and publicity are winding down, and the kids are back in school (at least, three out of the four),  we’re excited to pick up blogging again and will be doing more speaking events.  Join Michele and me this coming Monday, September 18, 2017, at the International School of Amsterdam as we talk about what exactly the Dutch are doing right when it comes to parenting. The John Adams Institute has kindly decided to host us, and we’re looking forward to such an eventful night. At the very least, you’ll get to meet us, up close and personal. We promise we’re quite entertaining and honest (at least, we’d like to think so).

 

Thanks for your continued support. Hopefully, you’ll be looking forward to more of our musings about life, culture, and parenting in the Netherlands.

 

Love,

Rina Mae

 

p.s. If you’re curious about our behind-the-scenes Dutched reality, take a peek on our Instagram accounts findingdutchland, rinamae and michelehutchison.

p.p.s. A perfect place to procrastinate is on our Facebook page where we share random updates concerning all things about Dutch culture, the Netherlands, and parenting.

 

 

(Photo by Rosa van Ederen)

What Finland Can Learn from the Dutch

5 September 2017

We’ve gone Finnish! Our Finnish publisher Siltala translated our book and invited us to come right on over to their side of the pond – Helsinki, Finland. And we gladly accepted!

We even managed to spot our book in a local bookstore downtown, have some honest talks about parenting with new friends, and immerse ourselves in Finnish culture.

What could the Nordic countries (Finland, Denmark, Iceland, Sweden, Norway) learn from the Dutch? They too have a very similar parenting philosophy – the importance of outdoor play, emphasis on play-based learning for babies, toddlers and kindergartners, and age-appropriate independence.

Finnish Journalist Anu Karttunen’s “Dutch Children are the world’s happiest – 5 things that differ from the Finnish Approach ” lends us her insight. Here are some things that we’ve learned the Dutch do differently, and the Finnish people can get inspiration from:

Mothering the Mother
Nowhere in the world is “mothering the mother” taken more seriously than in the Netherlands. Each mother is entitled to a maternity nurse at home to help her with taking care of her newborn and postpartum recovery. Sorry, Germany and the United Kingdom – though nurses do come by the house to do medical checks on a newborn baby and the recovering mother, they do not go Dutch – cooking, cleaning, teaching parents how to take care of the baby and allowing mom to get some rest.


Work-Life Balance
The Dutch Center for Statistics once again confirmed what most of us already know – the Dutch, by pure choice, work the least amount of hours in the entire European Union. On average, Dutch men work thirty-six hours a week and women work twenty-six. According to the researchers, because of the high productivity of the Dutch, they can work much less. Personally, I also think that the Dutch pragmatic approach to thrifty living and comparatively generous social system (from an American perspective) enables them more freedom from the modern drudgery of work.

“Relaxed” Approach to School
Even though Finland has arguably the “best” education system in the world, they may gain some inspiration from the relaxed Dutch approach to schooling.  According to the HBSC research, there seems to be a lot less pressure and stress among Dutch students compared to their Finnish peers. And somehow, with this relaxed approach, the Netherlands still the highest concentration of world-renowned research universities.

Chocolate for Breakfast
While the traditional Finnish breakfast sausages are lovely, who wouldn’t be happy having chocolate sprinkles on a slice of buttered white bread first thing in the morning? 😉

 

Mind you, life is also fantastic in Finland, especially when it comes to raising families. I appreciate the quirkiness of the culture and local art scene. I also love the ban on smoking in public places.  And even though they have dark, depressing and long winters, they’ve come to embrace light – great lighting design, safety reflectors, candles and cozy get-togethers with friends. I will definitely want to bring my family here to further explore the “Land of a Thousand Lakes” – Finland boasts 187,888 lakes within its territories- and of course, to witness the Northern Lights.

By the end of our trip, Michele said, “I already feel at home.” I echoed her sentiment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Translated by Terhi Vartia. For more details of the Finnish translation of our book, check out our publisher’s page.

 

 

On Teaching Values Versus the Pursuit of Wealth

4 August 2017

“Do not educate your children to be rich. Educate them to be happy so when they grow up, they will know the value of things, not the price.”- Victor Hugo (26 February 1802- 22 May 1885)

I’ve been thinking a lot about this platitude making its rounds on social media. It’s hard not to – my co-author Michele Hutchison and me wrote an entire book about why Dutch children are the happiest kids in the world.

My family and I live a comfortable, boring middle-class life complete with all the trappings of first world problems – doing endless laundry, complaining about the weather, and figuring out ways to entertain our boys during the weekend and school holidays.

But it wasn’t always that way. Not for me at least. It was always about the hustle of materializing the American dream – the clothes, purses, clothes, cars – and always dreaming of what it would be like to live in the fancier neighborhood. Rather than pursuing a career that fed my soul and takes the time for self-discovery, I was pushed to prioritize what would provide a more lucrative paycheck and prestige. In other words, I was raised to want to be rich. I don’t blame my parents. They came from an economically disenfranchised country where there was always an imminent threat of poverty. Money, or more accurately, the pursuit and accumulation of wealth was everything. And they come from a society where the value of one’s life is still measured by that wealth.

So when I stumbled upon Hugo’s words, it deeply resonated with me because of its haunting familiarity. Growing up in such a superficial environment left me an insecure, shallow mess which took years of reading self-help books (psychologists were beyond my means) and sympathetic ears to recover. And though I am immensely grateful for all the sacrifices my Filipino immigrant parents made for me, I want things different for my children.

I’ve decided, instead, to teach my children how to be kind, self-aware adults who value experiences and human connection rather the pursuit of material possessions. And I happen to live in the Netherlands, a culture that values virtues such as a kindness, pragmaticism, self-awareness, helpfulness, gratitude, and honest, hard work. It’s through these virtues, from my unscientific, casual observations, which fosters genuine happiness and well-being in children and adults.


And upon closer examination, the Dutch way of raising children isn’t unique at all. It’s how many of our grandparents and generations before us that were raised – a universal common sense approach to becoming kind and decent people. So how does one who is raising children with so much abundance – love, time, and material wealth – teach children to value what’s actually essential?

Embracing Connection with People
Create an atmosphere that values relationships with one another rather than the pursuit of material things. It’s as simple as starting the day together with a family breakfast. Focus on the conversation over a simple spread of bread, fruits, cheeses, etc. Or simply spending twenty minutes on the floor playing with your child, free from distractions from your phone and/or the television. It’s about making a concerted effort to be present and connect. And it isn’t about making memories for all those “special times” but rather in the everyday monotony of our daily lives – making dinner together, cleaning up, getting ready to head out.

Household Chores

From what I observed, there is no reward-based chore system in Dutch households. Children are expected to help out in the house because they are part of the family. There is no monetary value assigned to each completed task. Rather, Dutch children are expected to pitch in with daily household chores simply because they are part of the family. My five-year-old is responsible for setting up the table and helping clean up afterward, and my two-year-old removes the wash from the washing machine and into a basket. And both of them are expected to clean up their toys after they are done playing. They are assigned daily chores that are appropriate for their ages.

Fostering Curiosity and Learning Over Grades

The Dutch, like many other Northern European countries, have one expectation when it comes to school – it’s a place of learning, self-discovery, the fostering of curiosity, and learning how to get along with other people. I’m convinced that it’s important to nurture our children’s innate curiosity rather than stressing the importance of grades, class ranking and prestige. The chances are that our children may not be valedictorians, but we have a much better shot at helping them discover what they are interested in and developing the skills, insight, and self-awareness.

 

Being Kind to Themselves and Other People
Fostering and nurturing emotional intelligence can’t be emphasized enough. We need to be mindful of teaching our kids how to be kind to their siblings and classmates, to be able to fail and get back up again, to show concern for other people’s feelings and most importantly, to be kind to themselves. And a gentle reminder to be kind to yourself to as a parent – children, after all, have a special intuition for these things.

 

 

 

 

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.