“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.
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.