Have I got a book for you. It’s a fit for any parent with a school-aged child. But it’s also for anyone with an intellectual curiosity in educational systems, including taxpayers who support school districts. This book is called The Happiest Kids in the World: How Dutch Parents Help Their Kids (and Themselves) by Doing Less.
The book is written by two expat moms, Rina Mae Acosta (San Francisco) and Michele Hutchison (London). Both married Dutch guys and moved to The Netherlands. Rina lives in a quieter village, while Michele lives in the big city of Amsterdam. But both had to come to grips with their upbringings in the U.S. and UK, as Dutch culture challenged them to rethink everything they knew about child-rearing and education.
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The book opens by sharing the findings of a 2013 UNICEF report that rated Dutch children as the happiest in the world. From the book:
In 2013, a UNICEF report rated Dutch children the happiest in the world. According to researchers, Dutch kids are ahead of their peers in childhood well-being when compared with twenty-nine of the world’s richest industrialized countries. The US ranked twenty-sixth, just above Lithuania, Latvia and Romania – the three poorest countries in the survey….The UNICEF report was a follow-up to one conducted in 2007, in which the Netherlands was first heralded as a prime example of childhood prosperity. The US and the UK ranked in the two lowest positions.The Happiest Kids in the World
From babyhood to the teenage years, the book examines how Dutch children grow up at home, at school, and in their wider culture. What about their upbringing results in such fulfilling and successful lives?
Challenged by a new way of thinking
I take issue with many facets of traditional education in the United States. But it’s one thing to recognize a problem, and another thing entirely to evaluate potential solutions. From what I read in this book, Americans (and the British) could learn a lot from the Dutch.
One of the largest cultural differences examined in the book is the Dutch work to live (on average, they work 29 hours a week), while many people in the U.S. and UK seem to live to work. This mindset infiltrates down to the smallest members of society, which in the U.S. has become hyper-competitive starting at the preschool level.
Being top of the class, graduating with a first-class degree, playing a musical instrument to college-level proficiency or qualifying to compete in the Olympics won’t make the rest of your life any easier, or guarantee success and happiness in the future. We know this. Yet we’re pushing our children harder, encouraging them to achieve more and more in an attempt to ensure their future financial safety and well-being.The Happiest Kids in the World
Anecdote after anecdote about Dutch parenting reminded me about what I’ve seen while driving through Latin America. Both cultures set off fireworks in the street. Latin Americans carry several children and large household objects on one motorcycle, while the Dutch do the same thing–but on bicycle. The authors say Dutch parenting culture originally seemed too easy-going to them (they also used the words “self-centered” and “lazy”). I have observed much more hands-off parenting in Mexico and Central America, compared to what I’d see at any playground back in the states.
Realizing these similarities forced me to confront assumptions I’d been making. It’s easy to say, “well, it’s Latin America,” like we might of other, less developed parts of the world, then just move on. But The Netherlands is a developed country in Europe that is raising children in a similar fashion with success. So now I pay more attention?
Directly after reading The Happiest Kids in the World, I restarted a book called Free to Learn. While the former is sharing the positive values of a distant country, the latter is a clarion call by an American to Americans, asking them to rethink education in the U.S. The two books have different tones, but there are many similarities in the values they’re advocating.
There’s much I want to share about the findings of this book and how they’ve impacted my thinking, but then this article would end up as long as the book itself. I hope you’ll pick up a copy for yourself. Once you have, I’d love you to come back here and share your thoughts in a comment.