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Amsterdam: Has the famously laid-back country really cracked parenting?

Rina Mae Acosta, Michele Hutchison - Credit: Archant

Going Dutch – a new blog encourages parents to raise their children the Netherlands way.

Two mothers in the Netherlands have found themselves at the heart of the latest parenting craze: be more Dutch. Rina Mae Acosta, a Filippo-American writer from California and Michele Hutchison, a translator originally from London, both married Dutch husbands, run a blog called Finding Dutchland and are raising their children the Netherlands way – Hutchison in Amsterdam and Acosta in Driebergen.

In 2013, they published a blog post entitled The Eight Secrets of Dutch Kids: The Happiest Kids in the World. It had more than two million hits and led to the publication of a book, The Happiest Kids in the World: Bringing Up Children the Dutch Way, which has become an international bestseller in recent months.

Acosta and Hutchinson’s book is a phenomenon in the United States, where the Americans particularly seem to enjoy beating themselves over the head with their own failures at parenting: ‘Why Dutch kids are much happier than American children’ (Market Watch); ‘Dutch kids aren’t stressed out: What American kids can learn from how the Netherlands raises children’ (Salon); ‘The key to raising happy kids? The latest trend says do as the Dutch do’ (Washington Post).

The New York Post described the Netherlands as a ‘European utopia where babies are the happiest in the world’. Columnist Mackenzie Dawson points out that the country may be small (‘the size of two New Jerseys and with a population of 16.8 million’) but it boasts the title of ‘happiest in the world for children’ in a UNICEF survey of 29 of the world’s richest industrialised countries. (The United States ranked 26th, above Latvia, Lithuania and Romania, the three poorest countries in the survey. The UK ranked 16th.)

As Acosta and Hutchinson state in The Happiest Kids in the World, in the 2013 UNICEF survey, the Netherlands scored in the top five in each of the categories assessed: material wellbeing; health and safety; behaviours and risks; and housing and environment. They scored top in education, a category in which the UK ranked 24th. Other research is even more depressing for the Americans (who love quoting the results in a miserable, self-flagellating sort of way).

The authors also quote one study examining temperamental differences, published in the European Journal of Developmental Psychology, which found that Dutch babies were ‘more contented’ – smiling, laughing and cuddling – compared to American ones: ‘Dutch babies are easy to soothe whilst American babies display more sadness, fear and frustration.’ As the New York Post puts it: ‘It can be supremely annoying to read about yet another group of parents apparently crushing it while America lags.’ True. It’s all not very MAGA, is it?

It has, however, been very lucrative for the two imports to the Netherlands who came up with the concept, emphasising the Dutch capacity for contentment (mothers are less likely to be depressed), liberal attitudes and the emphasis on personal choice when it comes to lifestyle. They also point to work-life balance, with the Netherlands having the largest share of women working part-time of all OECD countries: ‘68% of Dutch women work only part time, roughly 25 hours a week.’ Dutch law gives part-time employees equal status to that of full-timers. Many fathers work a full-time job in four days and nominated their fifth day as ‘Papa dag’ (Daddy day). Rina Mae Acosta writes that ‘one in three men also opt for part-time work’.

The Dutch family philosophy is about taking pressure off everyone, according to Rina Mae Acosta. Children under the age of ten have no homework. There are no SATs and no formal competitive university application process, she writes. Interestingly, though, some Dutch commentators have objected to this characterisation of their easy-going nature and said there is plenty of pressure on students. Arguably in Rina Mae Acosta’s eyes, as an American, it can be portrayed one way and in the eyes of the Dutch, it’s not quite the same.

Acosta and Hutchison write that Dutch families are also likely to be relaxed about breakfast, allowing their kids to eat chocolate sprinkles (‘hagelslag’) on bread if that’s what they want. They are quick to point out, though, that what’s important about Dutch mealtimes is that families eat together: ‘Eating breakfast daily as a family creates opportune time for family bonding and fostering individual identity and growth.’ (I will try telling my children this when I next see them if they are in the same room as me for long enough.)

Whether their perspective is entirely accurate about Dutch life or whether their view has something of the rose-tinted glow of the happy immigrant justifying their life choices, the two mothers have certainly touched a nerve. In most countries people wish they knew how to bring up their kids properly and think other nationalities must be doing a better job. The Happiest Kids in the World is riding on the coat-tails of a publishing trend pitting international parenting methods against each other. Bringing Up Bébé and French Kids Eat Everything were best-sellers in 2012, extolling the French habits of strictness, encouraging manners and expecting children to live up to adult standards. Last year the hygge cult was extended to parenting with The Danish Way of Parenting. Perhaps unsurprisingly a British version does not seem to be forthcoming. (Parenting British-Style: How to Be Hands-Off and Generally Inept, anyone?)

Certainly there are some Dutch habits which wouldn’t do any of us any harm. The expression ‘Rust, Regelmaat en Reinheid’ (‘rest, regularity and cleanliness’) covers the essentials. Routine is important, especially for babies. And you are not supposed to over-schedule your children: ‘Limit outings to just once a day and prevent outside distractions such as television.’ Dutch babies do less and sleep more than over-stimulated American babies, they argue. The idea of what the Americans call ‘sleep struggle’ (fighting to get children to sleep through the night) is not a thing for Dutch parents, apparently.

The best advice of all, though, counts for babies, children and adults, and is summed up by the Dutch expression: ‘Doe maar gewoon dan doe je al gek genoeg.’ This translates as: ‘Just act normal, that’s crazy enough.’ This seems to be another way of saying, ‘Keep calm and carry on’. Or basically: ‘Don’t sweat the small stuff’. This is great wisdom for life, let alone for parenting.

With few exceptions, these foreigners’ take on the Dutch way of life has been well-received in their adopted homeland. One blogger who is a neighbour of Rina Mae Acosta in Driebergen, Utrecht, just south of Amsterdam, writes: ‘Rina talks about the freedom of children in Holland and how they mature through experience and the lack of helicopter parenting. I wholeheartedly agree. But if you ask my kids why they’re happy, it’s going to come down to chips [crisps] and [sugary iced] tea. What they’re really saying is that they have independence, freedom and choice.’

Their latest post on the Finding Dutchland blog is none too flattering about parenting in Britain. It’s an interview with Jamie Day, a British ‘daddy blogger’ based in rural Berkshire, who bemoans the British inability to relax and charts his own attempts to be more Dutch in day-to-day life: ‘Life with kids in the UK seems to go at 100mph,’ he says, ‘There this scary social pressure of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ or perhaps that should now be ‘keeping up with the Kardashians’, given this pressure has emerged from social media. This competitiveness is seemingly ingrained into our British consciousness and it’s starting to get out of hand.’ Oh well, at least he knows where to move to if it all gets too much.

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