How to raise your child to be happy – Danish style

There is no precise recipe for ensuring your child a happy life. There are, however, a few important ingredients that should be present in order to provide your child with the proper conditions for developing in a happy or satisfactory direction.
The most important thing is that your child grows up in a safe and stable environment with lots of love and care. Apart from that, we must provide physical, mental and social challenges for our children.

In the book; The Danish Way of Parenting: What the Happiest People in the World Know About Raising Confident, Capable Kids, my co-author Jessica Alexander and I point out the importance of building a strong internal compass in our children so that they will develop into happy, resilient and empathetic children who won’t get toppled no matter how much life throws at them.

Zone of proximal development
Much of the pedagogical learning style here in Denmark builds on the work of the Russian developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky and his theory of the zone of proximal development. This is entails that the child, with support from another, can carry out practical and mental actions which the child is not able to perform on his own, and in this way, contributes towards his/her own learning, i.e. when a child learns to walk.

The experience of succeeding with something new releases endorphins in the reward system of the child, which leads to feelings of happiness and satisfaction. In this manner there is renewed energy for testing out new and unexplored areas – such as where the most proximal, (nearest) zone of development might be located next time. This helps the child to develop a belief in his/her own value, and a healthy sense of self-worth. This is the best possible way to provide stimulation for your child.

If the child feels that they are too far away from their true zone of development, i.e. when a child feels pressure or senses fear associated with something, which exceeds normal nervousness, they may lose their sense of control and their own active part in the “zone”, which can give them a false experience of mastery. “I think I can (they expect me to be able to), but in reality this has no root in my own experience of being ready and therefore an independent actor in my own life (my own zone of proximal development)”.

Play develops self-worth
This may sound complicated, but wherever self-worth is fundamentally good, self-confidence is often best when it accompanies self-worth. Therefore, my best advice is to play as much as you can with your child. Go out in the woods, on the beach, in your yard, and in all sorts of places where the child feels happy, but also in places that provide opportunities to be curious, to use their imagination and test out their zone of proximal development.

The three major benefits of free play are:

1. Children learn to cope with stress and be more resilient. They test themselves to see how much stress they can handle and this makes them better at coping with stress later in life.

2. They learn self-control. Children who play with other children really want to keep the game going. That means that even if there are difficult kids or the rules have to be negotiated and re-negotiated, they need to practice self control (a valuable life skill) to stay in the game.

3. They are learning! Especially when there are kids of different ages. Play is teaching them so much. This has been overlooked in many countries-how much kids actually learn on their own.

Listen for initiatives
As parents it is also important to be able to “spot” the zone of proximal development for your child. Not the zone of development you want your child to be in, but the one your child actually finds himself in (they are not always the same). You can do this by listening for early initiatives or ideas your child may come up with. “I can do it myself…!” “Can I walk the dog?”, “You sit there, Dad, and I’ll sit here”, “See how high I can climb”, and “You can turn out the light when I’m asleep”, etc.

These statements indicate an active stance with regard to trying something new, and which the child feels ready to try. Try not to get in the way of this, but instead help your child to do this safely and securely, without involving your child in your plans. Allow your child to believe they have control. Show trust in your child – children grow when you show them that you think they can succeed.

These little tips are sure to help you promote greater independence in your child, which will equip him/her to a greater extent for whatever bumps they might encounter on their journey. If you can also teach your children to use words to express feelings and give them the opportunity to learn how to deal with conflict, you have the recipe for how to help them achieve happiness.

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