Last month, I reviewed The Danish Way of Parenting: A Guide to Raising the Happiest Kids in the World by Jessica Alexander and Iben Sandahl.. I’m following up this review with an interview. As I quiz co-author Jessica Alexander about the issues raised by the book.
1.) The Danes are considered to be the happiest nation in the world. Why do you think that is?
There are many reasons but we believe one of the biggest is that they actively teach empathy to their children. This ultimately makes people grow up to be more trusting of others, kinder and happier. Most of the recent scientific research coming out now proves this. The Danes have been instilling empathy and trust for a very long time in their people. And the results are that they continue to be one of the happiest countries in the world for over 40 years.
2.) My three boys all play football. The five-year-old trains twice a week, the 12-year-old three times, and the 15-year-old four times. Then they play a game at the weekend. How worried should we be about over-scheduling?
You shouldn´t be worried. If they enjoy what they are doing without feeling too pressured then there are a lot of great benefits to being on a team, experiencing outdoor life and getting exercise. Where it gets tricky is when parents drive their children to perform for their own desires for success. This can be stressful for kids because they learn to do things to please, rather than for the joy of doing. And children will always want to please their parents. This is not creating an internal drive in the child but rather it is showing that love is conditional and this can cause a lot of insecurity when they become adults. Danes believe that developing an internal drive in kids is crucial. That drive is what creates real confidence and true grit.
3.) During the academic year, how do you find a balance with (home)work and play? It seems that when our boys are not in school or football, they’re studying.
The balance is very individual. There is no “one size fits all”. But teaching your children to be aware of stress symptoms that may signal you are over-programming is important to be aware of. First things first; make a list of what is most important. If you sense your child is stressed out from the pressure, it might be time to reconsider what they are doing. It´s important they learn to understand their own limits as well and sense their own stress. This will help them stay balanced in life, which will create more wellbeing.
4.) I attended a Rudolf Steiner school for a couple of years. We were encouraged to decide on what our next main lesson would be. So we could influence what we’d learn about. One time we voted to make a raft. What’s your take on that?
Asking children to build a raft is a great idea. It is a creative way to teach an interdisciplinary course where you can mix things like woodworking and mathematics. Children learn a lot from these kinds of experiences. However, in terms of leaving the direction of the coursework to the students, that would not be a very “Danish Way” of teaching. Danes believe that children need a safe environment to learn in, but where an adult takes responsibility for the direction of the course.
5.) My nephew Carlos, who I mentioned in the book review, walks down the street pretending to be a soldier. His mother thinks this is a sign that he’s using his imagination. I’m more inclined to think he’s a product of the PlayStation generation. Who’s right?
You may both be right! If you ask him what he is thinking about while he is walking down the street, you might be surprised to get a third answer. Children are often affected by popular trends they see on TV etc, but while they are children, they test out those impressions and influences through the filter of their imaginations. What comes through may be an amalgamation of something completely unique!
6.) When you’ve had a difficult day on the work front, you might want some me time. But you stress the importance of empathising with your children. How can parents who might be inclined to unwind easily manage that?
In these cases it helps to be ahead of the situation. Before you step inside your house after a long working day, you should ask yourself whether you need “me-time” straight away or whether you can fill their “presence-glass” up first. If you need “me-time” then it’s good to honestly explain that and take the time you need so you can be present later. But it is important to give your children “you-time” where they feel connected to you at some point. This can be as little as 20 minutes a day. But those 20 minutes
should matter. Often, it is better to wait and give them that time when you are really ready to be fully present than to only be half-present. This is where it can be helpful to have a partner or a family member you can pass the baton onto when needed.
7.) I’ve worked in Spanish schools and the kids who like to play on their own are often deemed autistic. How fair an estimation is this?
It sounds like a very unfair stigma. We hope that the book can help eliminate this kind of unfair “labeling” of children. As we talk about in the book, labeling can have profound effects on adults but even more so on children. Many children grow into these labels, not because they are them, but simply because they have come to believe them by hearing them repeated over and over again. This is very sad because it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. And one hears labels thrown around so nonchalantly nowadays. One thing to keep in mind is that it is much easier to raise a happy child than it is to repair an adult. Words and labels really do matter.
8.) How does The Danish Way compared with Bringing up Bébe which extols the virtues of French parenting?
We get asked this question a lot. There are many differences with French and Danish parenting styles. Danes are not unfamiliar with the French parenting as the Danish Queen’s husband is French. While we don’t at all claim that one style is better than the other, we can merely point out that the two countries score very differently on the happiness scales. Whereas Denmark constantly scores in the top three, France scored 29 this year below Oman, Mexico and the U.S. That is four down from last year. French children may not throw food but are they happier for it in the long-run?