Vicky Hallett, a former Washington Post reporter, is a freelance writer in Florence, Italy.
What’s wrong with the American way of parenting?
Pretty much everything, according to an outpouring of child-rearing wisdom from our compatriots abroad. We’re a nation of helicoptering sanctimommies blinded by flashcards and Pinterest projects — and in desperate need of help. The 2012 bestseller “Bringing Up Bébé” touted the “wisdom of French parenting,” such as serving kids multi-course meals and letting them curse with an age-appropriate word. Then it was all about “The Danish Way of Parenting,” which promised to show us “what the happiest people in the world know about raising confident, capable kids.” (In short, get cozy and don’t yell.)
Now, apparently, it’s time to go Dutch. In their new book, “The Happiest Kids in the World,” two expat moms want to share what they’ve discovered about the Netherlands: “Childhood over here consists of lots of freedom, plenty of play and little academic stress. As a result, Dutch kids are pleasant to be around.” Moreover, co-authors Rina Mae Acosta and Michele Hutchison add, “a UNICEF report rated Dutch children the happiest in the world.” Take that, Denmark!
Acosta, an American, and Hutchison, a Brit, are both married to Dutch men; each couple is raising two children in the Netherlands. The authors have come to embrace the Dutch lifestyle, largely because of how the culture and government policies help create laid-back parents and self-assured children. By compiling expert interviews and sharing (and, at times, oversharing) their personal stories, the duo promises to reveal “what it is that the Dutch know and their British and American counterparts have forgotten or overlooked.”
Early on, “The Happiest Kids in the World” introduces readers to the Dutch expression “Rust, Regelmaat en Reinheid.” The idea is that babies need these three R’s (“rest, regularity and cleanliness”). And to make sure they get them, the government’s consultatiebureau — which monitors kids’ growth and development — hands out a parent instruction manual. Some key takeaways: Give babies a predictable routine, limit outings to just once a day and prevent outside distractions, such as TV.
Staying home and doing the exact same thing all the time — and not even getting to binge-watch “Scandal”? That sounds like a total snooze. Because that’s the point, Acosta and Hutchison explain. According to a study that compared child-rearing practices in the United States and the Netherlands, Dutch 6-month-olds slept two hours more each day than their American counterparts. Plus, the authors add, “the idea of the parent-infant ‘sleep struggle,’ ubiquitous among both Americans and the British, was not an issue for the Dutch.”
Digging deeper into this magic, a Dutch pediatrician offers an intriguing view on rest. He describes a common scenario: Your child wakes up with a fever at the crack of dawn, you need to get to work, and everyone in the family is on edge. How about instead, “you decide to take a sick day and go with the flow”? The baby “will be much calmer,” the doctor says. “You can just pick up your child, take her into bed with you and stay relaxed until her temperature goes down. If the mother is stressed, the child will be stressed, and that will make matters worse.”
True enough, but what if you’re out of sick leave and can’t take the day off?
Such concerns just aren’t very Dutch. As Acosta and Hutchison point out, nearly half of the country’s population works part-time, and even people in full-time jobs are at the office only 36 hours per week. A telling anecdote comes from the American professors behind that two-hour sleep-gap study. When they were collecting data in the Netherlands, they realized they needed a few extra interviews with Dutch families. But their Dutch research assistants refused to help them with any additional tasks: They had no more time allotted for work.
It’s this work-life balance that seems more responsible for the country’s happiness than any specific parenting technique. It’s how men are able to schedule a regular papadag (or “daddy day”) to spend quality time with their kids. It’s why it’s not a struggle to get the entire family together for both breakfast and dinner. It’s what allows for relaxed, extended vacations.
After a few chapters, it becomes clear that it’s not really moms and dads who need to adopt “the Dutch way.” The conclusion (titled “Let’s Start a Revolution”) lays much of the responsibility on “the state itself.” Want to instill Dutch-style independence? Build a vast network of safe bike lanes. Wish kids were less anxious about grades? Overhaul the school system to make it less competitive.
Reading this, American parents should probably just acknowledge that we will not be raising Dutch children — no matter how many cargo bicycles we own — unless we move to the Netherlands.
But Acosta and Hutchison won’t let us off the hook entirely. There are tip boxes with bullet-pointed suggestions such as “set ground rules” and “praise good behavior.” There’s a collection of low-key Dutch birthday party ideas, including “a snow party.” This involves waiting until it snows and then having a party. For breakfast, they endorse the Dutch tradition of serving toast “piled high” with butter and chocolate sprinkles.
It all sounds quite quaint — as the authors describe it, “a childhood from black-and-white photographs.”
And perhaps therein is the key to our obsession with this genre: a yearning for simplicity. Add to that a dash of insecurity and guilt. Has modern American life somehow erased our parental instincts? Is our ignorance harming our children?
My husband and I didn’t need a book to stir up such thoughts. When we moved from Washington to Florence, Italy, in the summer of 2015 with our 5-month-old, we had never considered our parenting style particularly American — whatever that means — until our plane landed.
Then, mamma mia! We bristled at the parade of random strangers tickling our daughter’s feet. She apparently never wore enough clothes — one woman reprimanded us for not having her in a scarf in August. Our new pediatrician deemed her 8 p.m. bedtime way too early and suggested introducing solid food in the form of a veggie soup sprinkled with Parmesan cheese.
Slurping her delicious leftovers, it was hard not to wonder whether I had been doing this parenting thing all wrong.
I was beginning to toy with the idea of investing in a baby scarf collection when I struck up a conversation with a Norwegian mom at my daughter’s day care. She complained that kids in Italy don’t get to nap outside, which is standard practice in Norway, even in the snow. (Acosta and Hutchison report that some Dutch day-care centers are following this trend and are installing “special insulated outdoor cribs.”)
What dawned on me in that moment — and what any reader will learn after country-hopping through enough of these books — is that there’s an entire planet’s worth of parenting wisdom. Following all of it would be like trying to hunt down every stray Lego in the house — impossible, and perhaps foolish.
Of course there’s still value in learning about how things work in other countries. For instance, I’m now a believer in that multi-course meal trick from “Bringing Up Bébé”: Serve cut-up fruit first at breakfast, and do the same with veggies for lunch and dinner. The healthy stuff ends up getting eaten instead of pushed aside. “The Danish Way of Parenting” has me practicing my ability to “reframe,” which is apparently what Danes do whenever dealing with anything negative. (Like their weather.) The idea is to face the facts but give them the most optimistic spin possible. My Italian experience has taught me that although baby scarves may not be necessary — particularly in a Mediterranean climate — they’re kind of adorable.
And from “The Happiest Kids in the World,” I’ve picked up a Dutch mantra: “Doe maar gewoon dan doe je al gek genoeg.” In other words, Acosta and Hutchison explain, “Just act normal, that’s crazy enough,” or “Calm down.”
For American parents reading too many of these books, that may be the most important advice of all.
By Rina Mae Acosta and Michele Hutchison
The Experiment. 256 pp. Paperback, $15.95