All parents want their children to be happy, but some are far more successful in this endeavor than others. In fact, Americans as a whole seem to be doing a pretty poor job of ensuring their children’s happiness when compared to other countries. A report from UNICEF ranked the happiness of American children at just 26th out of the 29 countries assessed.
Which country has the world’s happiest children? According to the report, it’s the Netherlands. They reached this conclusion after assessing countries on dimensions such as health and safety, behaviors and risks, housing and environment, education and material well-being. Parents around the world might want to take a look at how Dutch children are raised and consider adopting some of their practices.
Expats raising children in the Netherlands have identified a few factors that set Dutch child-rearing practices apart. First of all, Dutch babies tend to get more sleep, and their parents tend to be more protective of their sleep time and more careful about avoiding over-stimulation. A study published in the European Journal of Developmental Psychology found that Dutch babies appeared more content than those from the U.S. and were easier to soothe, while American babies showed more sadness, frustration, and fear. Interestingly, Dutch parents also use less toys when interacting with their children than parents from consumerist-minded America.
Dutch fathers are also far more involved in their children’s lives than American fathers. The Netherlands in general is known for having a good work-life balance, and the average work week there is just 29 hours, freeing up more time to nurture children. Dads tend to take on an equal role to moms in child-rearing, with many fathers bringing their kids to school, carrying out the bedtime routine, and wearing baby carriers out and about. Dutch society is far less competitive, with those “Mommy Wars” of mothers trying to outdo each other simply not a part of life there. This means kids are not surrounded by anxious mothers trying to throw the fanciest birthday party or buy the most elaborate gift.
There is more of a focus on family time in general in the Netherlands. Children are the center of the family in Dutch culture, and parents tend to view them as individuals instead of extensions of themselves, granting them more independence. For them, happiness and success go hand in hand.
Another important factor is the lower emphasis on children’s academic achievements and grades in the Netherlands. School starts when children turn 4 but structured learning doesn’t begin until age 6, and primary school kids rarely have homework. Children there are known to play outside no matter what the weather is. In fact, one common saying among parents there is “There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.”
The benefits of this extra time outdoors should not be underestimated. American kids between the ages of 8 and 12 spend an average of six hours a day consuming media, which is six hours they could be spending outside observing nature, breathing fresh air, kicking a ball around, getting sunshine and exercise, tending a garden, and learning how the world works.
A study from the University of Michigan found that simply being outside among nature can improve the attention and memory of children. Moreover, kids who play outside regularly tend to be smarter and healthier as their immune systems are stronger. A Swedish study, meanwhile, found that children’s brains are stimulated when they participate in cardiovascular outdoors activities.
Childhood has a tremendous influence on a person’s entire life. A study from the London School of Economics exploring what makes people happy found that a person’s emotional health as a child was the strongest determinant of their mental well-being as they got older, which is why parents need to take a proactive role in their children’s life and ensure their physical and emotional needs are being met.