When Rina Mae Acosta, originally from California, fell in love with a Dutch man, they got married and moved to the Netherlands. At first she wasn't sure what to make of the new culture. But as soon as she became a parent, she was struck by the richness of Dutch family life — by how independent, resilient and happy Dutch children seemed.
Data backs up Acosta's impression. In the latest UNICEF study ranking 29 of the world's richest industrialized countries according to child well-being, Dutch children come out on top. America ranks 26th, just above Lithuania and Latvia.
Acosta and her British friend, Michele Hutchison (also an expat married to a Dutch man), decided to document the differences they saw between their own pressurized childhoods and the Dutch parenting style, and explain what it is about the Dutch approach that is producing such contented kids. The result is their book, "The Happiest Kids in the World: How Dutch Parents Help Their Kids (and Themselves) by Doing Less."
Acosta and Hutchison say there are some key tips American parents can incorporate into their family life:
1. Low-key family time is the way to go
"Scrap the idea of 'quality time,' as American and British parents know it," says Hutchison. "That is too stressful and puts too much pressure on planning and finances."
Instead, Dutch parents enjoy spending lots of relaxed time together at family meals, or having the children play nearby while the parent is attending to his or her own interests and projects.
2. Building children's independence is paramount
Part of why Dutch parents are able to have that low-key family time is because they allow their children a high degree of independence, even allowing them to climb trees unsupervised and bike alone at a young age.
"It isn't that the Dutch aren't aware of risk," Acosta says. "They just keep the risk in perspective."
Using the example of biking, Hutchison cites that most children in the Netherlands attend bike safety training courses.
3. Children will thrive in a low-pressure environment at school
Dutch kids are not taught to read and write until about age 7 and don't get regular homework until their early teenage years, yet they score at the top of educational achievement and participation in the same UNICEF study.
Catherine Tamis-LeMonda, professor of applied psychology at NYU Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, says that low-stress start to schooling makes good sense.
"A huge number of studies show that children's motivation to do things — to be engaged, to learn about their world — goes up when they make choices about what to do," she says.
Stressing less and relaxing more as the recipe for happy children? It might be time we all "go Dutch."
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