Parenting as an expat: The Dutch taught me how to loosen up and give my kids some much-needed freedom

It wasn't until I moved to the Netherlands with my 3-year-old that I learned why Dutch children are the happiest

Published July 3, 2016 7:30PM (EDT)

A photo of the author.
A photo of the author.
Parenting as an expat in the Netherlands means surrounding your own children with some of the most confident, self-possessed and happy children in the world.
On good days, I feel like I’ve gifted my children with the opportunity to experience a childhood straight out of a "Leave It To Beaver" episode, where kids are free to play in the street, cycle over to their friend’s house and come home when it’s time for dinner.
On other (not-so-good) days, I feel like the uptight expat mom who is forever telling her kids to be careful on the play equipment or trying to convince them of the health benefits of rice cakes and apple slices while the Dutch kids enjoy their fluffy white bread smothered in butter and chocolate sprinkles.
It turns out that I wasn’t the only one thinking that Dutch kids were enjoying a pretty idyllic childhood. Dutch children have been found by UNICEF to be the happiest kids in the world, twice. Which means that Dutch parents can, by reflected glory, claim the mantle of world’s best parents. After all, isn’t a child’s happiness the ultimate parenting win?
These surveys not only found Dutch kids to be the happiest by UNICEF's objective standards (education, health and material well-being), but when children were asked to rank their own happiness levels Dutch kids once again came out on top. Not only are Dutch kids doing well in life, but they also recognize just how good they have it.
Living as an expat among the Dutch for seven years, these findings came as no surprise. So what does it mean to parent alongside the Dutch: Is it a series of daily recriminations about your own shortfalls as a parent? Or is it an inspiring jolt to lift up your own parenting game?
The truth over the past seven years has been a little of both.
I may feel like I’m the only person disciplining my kids at the playground, but parenting Dutch style also means letting go—letting kids be kids, not worrying about keeping up with the Joneses (or the van der Meyers) and prioritizing time spent together as a family.
It turns out it’s not just what the Dutch do that are making their kids happy, but what they don’t do.
They aren’t materialistic
The most well-known expression that captures the Dutch approach to life is "doe maar gewoon, dan doe je al gek genoeg," or "just act normal, that's crazy enough."
Everyone may own a bike (or three), but they are just as likely to be 50 Euro rust buckets (often preferred given the high likelihood that your bike will be stolen) as they are to be a 1,200 Euro bakfiets (cargo bikes ideal for carting up to five or six kids, and preferably well insured). Critics claim that the push for conformity devalues excellence and achievement, and makes those who can’t (or don’t want to) conform feel relegated to outsider status. The upside of the be-normal attitude is that those who flaunt their wealth are looked down upon and kids grow up in an environment that doesn’t confuse material possessions for success or happiness.
They don’t helicopter parent
Shorty after moving to the Netherlands, we cycled into our street after school to be met with Beyoncé blasting out of a neighbor’s stereo and kids practicing their "Single Ladies" dance moves on the three-tiered scaffolding construction workers had left behind. The parents of the strutting children were occasionally checking in on them but otherwise the kids were left unsupervised, clamoring for a spot on their improvised podium. I watched both bemused and mentally ticking off all the ways this would never be allowed to happen back home.
These Dutch kids are not being raised shrouded in cotton wool. They had started cycling alongside their parents from the age of 2 or 3 and by their tenth birthday many would be cycling solo to school and weekend sports clubs. Dutch parents clearly care about their kids’ safety, but also invest in preparing their children for the outside world rather than shielding them from it. While I was worrying, the Dutch kids were gaining a sense of achievement, independence and self-confidence.
They don’t avoid the big issues
The Dutch are well known for their liberal attitudes towards the big-ticket issues of soft drugs, prostitution and euthanasia, but don’t expect to encounter a large-scale hippy commune in the lowlands. Their liberal attitudes to these issues are in stark contrast to the regime that dictates everyday Dutch life. You may be able to buy a joint at the local coffee shop, but you should expect a hefty fine if you put your trash out before the designated time.
The Dutch attitude of keeping things out in the open also means that Dutch parents are happy to speak candidly with their children about sex, drugs and everything in between. Dutch teenagers aren’t all saints, but it’s no coincidence that the Netherlands has one of the lowest rates of teen pregnancy in the world, predominantly due to pregnancy prevention.
They don’t treat school as a race to achieve
We moved to the Netherlands, it was a shock to find out that my daughter would be starting school on her 4th birthday. While Dutch kids start school at a young age, it isn’t an early start in a race to see who can learn to read first or memorize the times tables.
Kids are encouraged to explore and play, and the importance of developing social skills is at the forefront of their education, especially in the early years. With 17 million people crammed into a country roughly the size of Maryland, it's not surprising that a high value is placed on developing the skills to help you live side by side.
They don’t see their kids as a reflection of their parenting
A lifeline for us expat moms were the coffee mornings where we would swap war stories in our shared mother tongue, regardless of our accent. Whether boasting or bemoaning, there was a common thread of viewing our child’s actions as a direct product of our parenting decisions. It seemed like an almost reflexive response to doubt our patenting strategy if our offspring weren’t quite living up to our maternal expectations.
The Dutch moms didn’t appear to regularly indulge in this nagging self-doubt. They seemed, from the outside at least, to view their children as separate people, with their own personalities and strengths, and not a reflection of hours spent pouring over parenting books or coordinating after-school activities.
The Dutch parents I met were proud of their children’s achievements at school. They were happy when their daughter scored a goal at her hockey match or kept a tune on the piano at the school assembly. They felt proud but they didn’t feel responsible, or confuse their child’s achievement with a report card on their parenting skills.
They side-step the rat race
The Dutch are wealthy people and can lay claim to their fair share of high achievers (it’s the home of "The Voice" and "Big Brother" after all), but it’s not achieved at the expense of a work-life balance. The Dutch may work hard, but they don’t let their work hours encroach into family time. The Dutch love to have an early dinner and at 6 p.m. When the boerenkool met worst (mashed potatoes with kale and sausage) is served, odds are that both parents will be sitting around the table with their children.
Our family never could acquire a taste for Dutch processed meat, but we did enjoy being able to spend time together as a family at both ends of the day. Moving far away from family and friends meant relying on each other for support, and living in the Netherlands gave us time together to be able to do just that.
So, can outsiders learn to parent like the Dutch?
Raising children alongside the Dutch undoubtedly motivated me to lift my parenting game. It helped me move out of my comfort zone and let my 9 year old walk alone to the local shops and enjoy the sense of accomplishment that came with this independence. It gave me permission to stand a bit further back and let the kids try and sort out their own battles and boundaries. It also made me realize that despite my best efforts at integrating, there were some things I couldn’t let go of. Much to my children’s disappointment, chocolate sprinkles (hagelslag) never made it onto our breakfast menu and wearing helmets when cycling remained mandatory.
I may never be mistaken for a Dutch parent, but parenting among them gave me the freedom to loosen the reigns, appreciate a culture that values time spent as a family and where my kids weren’t asking for the latest must-have brand of sneakers. It’s hard to imagine who wouldn’t be happy with that.

By Mihal Greener

Mihal Greener has written for the Huffington Post and other publications.

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