Parenting a Puppy Part 3: The Teenage Years

4 August 2016



There’s this hilarious bit in Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of A Tiger Mother in which her extreme parenting techniques have only partially worked on her two daughters and she gets a dog. Naturally she’s convinced her dog is a genius and she’s going to be able to get it to learn all kinds of things with some discipline. Turns out the dog’s not that bright and much of her coaching fails. I think Chua is prepared for her husband’s and the reader’s laughter at this point. She’s fully aware of her own compulsive drive to push and improve and the way it descends into farce.

I’m in a similar position, owning a puppy now that my children (aged 9 and 12) have become quite independent and no longer need me like they used to. I can test out my parenting techniques on the dog. The only thing is my aims aren’t the same as Chua’s. I’m rather proud of my children – they are smart and likeable and help out at least some of the time. But where much of my Dutch-influenced parenting has been about teaching them independence, resourcefulness and self-sufficiency, these aren’t exactly talents you want to instil in a dog. A safe dog is an obedient dog. It doesn’t run away and it doesn’t jump up at people.

While thinking about this, it strikes me that one advantage to Pippa being a dog rather than a child is that I’m not desperate for her to like me. I don’t care if I upset her by asking her to sit and wait rather than run after that man on a bike. I want an obedient, safe dog more than I want one that can do tricks and think for itself. I’m convinced that discipline is what makes a dog happy. This is somewhat true of children, too, I expect. They need structure and clarity, but things do get complicated by wanting them to love you. It makes enforcing discipline harder. Dogs love you anyway. Thank God for that.

The crazy thing about dogs is that they grow up super fast. They double in size in a matter of weeks and all of their milk teeth drop out in the space of a fortnight. At least Pippa’s have. Compare this to my 12 year-old, still waiting for his last two molars to go so that he can get his first brace fitted. Parenting a puppy is like living on fast forward. Blink and you miss it. But unfortunately all this accelerated physical growth doesn’t correlate to accelerated learning. They don’t learn all the commands in a matter of days. It takes months and months for them to figure out what you want and decide to obey.

Deciding to obey is also a thing. Having finally got a few commands instilled in her, Pippa is just hitting puberty and her behaviour is starting to get a bit more rebellious: running off down the road instead of getting in the car, chasing other dogs and children when called to heel, ignoring requests to drop those dirty nappy wipes. She knows what I want her to do, but she’s deliberately ignoring the stuff she doesn’t want to hear. People tell me you just need to stay calm and patient and get through this stage; it’ll pass. All dogs calm down and get easier. Funny thing that, is this going to be the secret to dealing with teenage children, too?

Ten Reasons Amsterdam-Noord is the Perfect Post-Hipster Paradise

20 July 2016


First a confession: I’m not a hipster, even though I live in North Amsterdam aka Amsterdam-Noord – the equivalent of Berlin’s Kreuzberg, London’s Hackney or New York’s Williamsberg. It’s been the place to live in Amsterdam for about five years now and has been lauded the hipster capital of the Netherlands There’s plenty that’s as hipster-clichéd as the marketing term, from the restaurants and bars around the graffiti-covered industrial terrain at NSDM-wharf, to Oedipus microbrewery which has built itself a make-shift bar in an old factory building [Gedempte Hamerkanaal 85], to Café de Ceuvel which is a cool bar and simultaneously a project to reclaim and cleanse polluted land. Long gone are the days when Noord was the place the gallows hung and criminals and anti-socials were housed in an experimental closed community.* Urban wasteland regeneration, here we go.

The thing is, I moved here nine years ago, upscaling to give us space for our second child. I’m a bit too old to be a hipster but hey, even the hipsters have settled down and had kids by now. So here are the reasons Amsterdam-Noord is great for both pre- and post-hipster generations:


1. Space and light. The massive Noorderpark [] runs right through the centre of the neighbourhood. If you cycle just 10 minutes further north you hit rural Waterland with its polders, dykes and windmills. You can’t get more Dutch.  


2. Few tourists. Fortunately, most tourist maps cover the area south of Central Station.


3. Free ferry across the IJ to blow away the cobwebs as you enter and leave your paradise. The river forms a psychological buffer to the stresses of city life.


4. Culture. EYE film museum & cinema, the Tolhuistuin complex (Paradiso, for great bands), plus there are all kinds of musical and theatrical activities going on in, e.g. at the Roze Tanker [], and Noorderparkkamer. Readings at bookshop ‘Over het water’.

Great primary schools like Het Wespennest, De Bijenkorf, Elzenhagen and Montessori Boven ‘t IJ.


6.Great secondary schools like Hyperion Lyceum, Damstede Lyceum, De Nieuwe Havo, Clusius College.


7. Idyllic Dutch streets full of crooked houses such as the Nieuwendammerdijk and Buiksloterdijk give a real village feel.


8. Friendly neighbours. My street has its own Facebook group and plenty of joint activities for young and old such as barbecues, in-house concerts and Easter egg hunts. The pavement becomes a massive communal living room in the summer.


9. Safe places for children to play away from busy traffic. Lots of parks and playgrounds, a skateboard park, paddling pool, new outdoor swimming pool. And lots of bike paths!


10. Waterfront restaurants providing a fantastic view plus reasonably-priced, delicious food like Hotel Goud Fazant, Stork, Il Pecorino Wilhelmina Dok, Loetje aan ‘t IJ. And near-the-waterfront restaurant, Café Modern.



Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Friesland

7 July 2016

I’ve just spent a week on the beautiful island of Terschelling learning the second official language of the Netherlands: Frisian. Friesland is a northern province with a long coastal line and a cluster of stunning islands. The archipelago of islands forms a chain along the coast of north-western Europe and belong not just to the Netherlands but also to Germany and Denmark as you proceed further north. Terschelling (Skylge in Frisian) has long been my favourite holiday destination in the Netherlands. It combines sweeping sandy beaches with dunes, pine forests and a large nature reserve. Think elaborately-layered skies, huge expanses of sand, and seabirds.




I was one of four Dutch-to-English translators invited on a beginner’s crash course in Frisian. A forthcoming anthology of Frisian literature needs to be translated for a British publisher and we’ll be rolling up our sleeves. The plan is to continue to improve our Frisian over the coming months, but luckily there will also be a Dutch translation we can consult. No one in their right mind would agree to translate from a language they’ve learned in a week. Years of exposure and cultural immersion are necessary to understand all the nuances of a language and produce a good translation. That said, the course was pretty intensive – right from the start we were taught in Frisian by the brilliant Anne Tjerk Popkema (Frisian men tend to be called either Anne or Tjerk – he has both), the translator of The Hobbit, amongst other books.

The reason we could understand enough Frisian to be taught in it is because it is from the same language family as Dutch (Germanic). The two languages have existed side by side throughout the centuries and given that all Frisians are bilingual and also speak Dutch, there’s been a fair amount of linguistic seepage. So far so good. But there’s an added complication. There isn’t just one type of Frisian. Broadly speaking, there are actually three different regional variations of the language. And like many minority languages, it tends to be spoken rather than written, so spellings vary individually. What we were learning was a kind of standardized Frisian that no one actually speaks.

Many of the words sound like Dutch words but once they’ve been written down, it’s harder to recognize them. And as in many related languages, there are ‘false friends’. Net in Dutch (just) is not the same as net in Frisian (not). A humorous advert plays with this distinction by having Frisians say ‘Het kan net’ (It’s not possible) to Dutch tourists who refuse to go away. Frisian is sometimes described as English’s first cousin, though to be honest, modern Frisian would be completely unintelligible to monoglot English speakers and more likely to be understood by Dutch, Germans and Danes. Old forms of Frisian are clearly related to (old) English, however, and have shared words like the and that.

Most people have heard of Frisian cows and there is a link: the first Frisians were cattle farmers, though the cows came in all shapes and sizes back then, around 3400BC. They weren’t the pretty black-and-white variety we have today. Other famous Frisian exports include horses (Dan Brown and his wife breed them), the dancing spy Mata Hari and supermodel Doutzen Kroes. The islands of Terschelling and Vlieland also produce cranberries. ‘Cranberries: good for pissing’ was printed on the stickers from one gift shop I visited to buy a thank you present for my mum who’d been looking after my kids all week. By then I’d learned enough Frisian to figure out the mistake – the Frisian verb to pee is pisje.

A surprise test on the last day of the course revealed my geographical ignorance of the area. The famous 200km-long skating tour, the Elfstedentocht, goes through eleven Frisian towns. I’m going to learn them off by heart in both languages in case I ever get tested again. Repeat after me: Ljouwert (Leeuwarden), Snits (Sneek), Drylts (IJlst), Sleat (Sloten), Starum (Stavorum), Hylpen (Hinderloopen), Warkum (Workum), Boalsert (Bolsward), Harns (Harlingen), Frjentsjer (Franeker), Dokkum (Dokkum).



With thanks to AFUK, the Dutch Foundation for Literature and Provincie Fryslân.

Is it normal…? Parenting a Puppy Part 2

27 May 2016


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

© Maaike Koning


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

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

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

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

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


Parenting a Dutch Puppy

10 May 2016

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


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


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


Raising a Dutch Puppy

parenting puppy

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

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


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The Life-Changing Magic of King’s Day

28 April 2016

The Life Changing Magic of King's Day ©Michele Hutchison

Each year my kids get to have their own Marie Kondo moment. As Koningsdag – King’s Day – approaches the time comes  to sort through all their old toys and decide what to sell. Do you still play with it? No. Have you grown out of it? Yes. Onto the pile. Many of these toys were accumulated at previous King’s Day markets for a couple of euros at the most. My husband and I are sometimes glad to see the back of them – particularly those of the cheap plastic, noisy variety.  I admit it, joy is sparked in my mind when I see those go on the pile. Less joyous is the way some of the toys selected for sale mark the end of an era. A Miffy hand puppet, dolls, a beloved train set or a set of Early Reader books. But there is no room for sentimentality – the more the children sell, the more cash they  make to buy new toys.

There is a long tradition of buying and selling your old toys in the Netherlands. Two areas in Amsterdam are set aside for children’s free markets: the Vondelpark and the NDSM wharf on the north bank of the river IJ. Grown-up Dutchies turn the rest of the city into an orange-festooned party zone and random junk market. There’s a lot of loud music and beer and drunken revelry so it’s better for the kids to have their own venues where there is relative peace and quiet.

The Life Changing Magic of King's Day

©Michele Hutchison


If you opt for the Vondelpark you can take a blanket to spread out on the grass for the kids to display their wares on. Enterprising children can also earn money by singing, dancing or playing a musical instrument, sometimes blowing their very first notes by the sound of it. Or they paint the faces or fingernails of passers-by a clumsy orange. I tend to make a run for it when I see them to be honest.

The NSDM wharf is home to the monthly flea market so you can hire a proper market stall for the princely sum of €7. Or you can simply put down a blanket on the tarmac which we did last year. It was rather uncomfortable, even after the children had managed to acquire an inflatable cushion and a prayer stool to sit on. This year we hired a stall and as the date neared, we began to worry about the weather forecast. Hailstorms and strong winds threatened to put a dampener on the celebrations. We decided to simply brave it, like proper Dutch people. It would instil some extra grit in the kids. Martijn bought a canvas sheet and I transferred all the toys to plastic crates with lids. When we arrived, my hobby sailor husband quickly strung up the canvas, employing his canny way with knots. All Dutch men know how to raise a sail and tie a seaman’s knot, perhaps they are born with the skill.   

The canvas kept us out of the wind, more or less, and protected the stall from the intermittent showers. Between them, Ben and Ina earned €34 which is not too bad, but not a great hourly rate for freezing your ass off in the cold. We got rid of just over half the junk. But no worries. Everything left over simply gets stored until next year’s market.

King’s Day 2016 marked the end of another era. Ben didn’t find anything to buy this year. He’d grown out of most of what was on offer. Ina, however, found herself some off-white cuddly toys, a Sudoku board game and this fantastic bargain. I wonder whether it will still spark joy in her mind next year. Somehow I fear it will.


The Life Changing Magic of King's Day
©Michele Hutchison

How I Ended Up in Dutchland and Why I Decided to Stay

26 April 2016



photo copyright © Gelya Bogatishcheva


Next month I’ll have been living in Amsterdam for twelve years. It’s the longest I’ve lived anywhere. Until then my life seemed to have followed a rhythm in sixes, from birth to six years, from six to twelve, twelve to eighteen, then the six university years of moving every six months, and then six years in London. I didn’t come here for love, though I did marry a Dutchman. Actually, I was married to a Dutchman before I lived in Holland. We had a long-distance commuter marriage and that suited me just fine. (One of my exes once called me commitment-phobic, but we won’t go into that.) In any case, Amsterdam/London on alternate weekends went smoothly, until I got pregnant. And the pregnancy worked just fine, mainly on my own, until it was time to almost give birth. It was only logical for me to take my six-months paid maternity leave in Amsterdam, so off I went, 37 weeks pregnant and about to pop.


The Dutchman (he’s called Martijn* but only proper Dutch people can pronounce that, my mum spent years calling him Mar-tidge-en) picked me up in a van and drove me and my boxes and boxes of books from my publishing job back over the channel to his home city. I didn’t pop. It was six weeks before the baby deigned to make an appearance (another six). But by the time I’d crawled through the lonely isolation of a maternity leave in a foreign country, I realised I was going to have to change my plans.



photo copyright © Gelya Bogatishcheva


What kind of a fruitloop would try to bring up a child in London when all the advantages of a happy, relaxed Dutch childhood were staring me in the face? Friends back home who had become mothers were killing themselves trying to get from the crèche to the office on time and back again in the rush hour. There was no let- up of work pressure, and on top of that there was pressure to be the perfect mum. Perfect mums did things like teaching their kids to read and write before they even went to school, when would I have time for that? When I took a look around me I saw that the Dutch have:

  • a fantastic, non-fee paying school system
  • relaxed parenting styles
  • kids playing freely outdoors
  • a better work/life balance for parents
  • no horrendous public transport issues – you could simply bike everywhere

It was a total no-brainer. And here I am almost twelve years later. I’ve got two children, a son Benjamin and a daughter, Ina, who is two and a half years younger. And my life has stopped moving in sixes. Although in six years’ time, I may be tempted to move again.


*Martijn is pronounced something like Moarr-tey-n. Only the Moarr bit has to be nice and short, not elongated.