More so than making sure they end up being doctors, teachers, architects, etc., the things most parents wish most for their children is happiness. So, how do you keep your kids smiling from ear to ear (at least on the inside), even through adulthood? It might sound like an impossible goal, but there is a magical place out there that truly has the happy market cornered—a country full of joyful, balanced people. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, Denmark has been home to the “happiest people on earth” for almost 40 years.
So, what’s the Danes’ secret? To answer this question, we’ve turned to Jessica Alexander, co-author of The Danish Way of Parenting: A Guide To Raising The Happiest Kids in the World, a powerful new method of raising children. Alexander, who wrote the book alongside Danish psychotherapist Iben Sandahl, sat down with us to explain what exactly “Danish parenting” is and how this culture continues to bring up kids who are “resilient and emotionally secure”—in other words, exactly what we’re all aiming for.
How would you describe Danish parenting?
“Danish parents actively teach their children empathy and to value others. They base their success on real teamwork rather than only striving to be the star. They work more on building a child’s self-esteem (a solid foundation of who they are in relation to others), rather than self-confidence (an outward appearance of what they can do, appear like, or own in relation to others). This sturdy foundation rooted firmly in empathy is what they believe brings true happiness and wellbeing to us all in the long run.”
What led you to write this book?
“I have been married to a Dane for 14 years and always marveled at the calm, well-behaved, and caring nature of children in Denmark. That was before I had kids. When I had my own, I realized that I preferred the Danes’ off-the-cuff advice above all the books/internet/friends and family advice I was getting. One day, while listening to my husband reframe my daughter’s language around the way she was experiencing something fearful, it hit me that there was truly ‘a Danish way of parenting.’ They have a parenting style that is very different than ours and I was convinced that it was part of the reason they are so consistently voted as the happiest people in the world. I went to a Danish psychologist and together we laid out the main pillars of The Danish Way based on a lot of painstaking research.”
How would you describe the primary differences between Danish and American parenting styles?
“Danes don’t over program their kids’ lives. Play is considered one of the most important things a kid can do (and learn from), even into high school. There is a big focus on the zone of proximal development, which means they respect children where they are at in their learning process and try to help them just enough so they don’t lose the joy in learning for themselves. This kind of learning—respecting the zone of proximal development—builds more self-esteem and resilience, and play facilitates this. In America, we often feel if our child isn’t doing something measurable, they must not be learning enough. But as Mr. Rogers said, ‘For children, play is serious learning.'”
“Another difference: Danes actively teach empathy in school, starting in pre-school. It is as important as teaching Math or English. They ‘keep it real.’ Everything doesn’t have to have a happy ending. Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytales (one of the most famous Danes) are often very dark or sad, but have been modified in America to fit a culturally accepted version. The original Little Mermaid, for example, doesn’t get the prince in the end. She dies of sadness and turns into sea foam. Reading books that deal with hard topics helps parents cover a wide range of emotions with their children and this has been proven to improve their empathy skills. I think sometimes in America we tend to avoid confronting the harder emotions if we can help it. In Denmark, they jump right into those! The books I have seen my husband read to my daughter have dropped my jaw at times, but I know it is good for her and she loves it!”
“Also, spanking became illegal in 1984 in Denmark. Danes use a diplomatic, avoiding ultimatums approach. As a result, they are a very non-violent culture. They focus on managing problems rather than disciplining them. And they have ‘hygge‘ as one of their highest and most important values as a cultural norm. That is: Cozy time where the focus is ‘we’ not ‘me.'”
What do you want people to take away from The Danish Way?
“The one thing we would really love for people to take away from the book is to question the way things are or ‘our default settings’ as Americans. It is incredibly difficult to see how our culture shapes our values, our way of being, and even our way of raising kids (a.k.a. parental ethnotheories). These behaviors are so engrained in us we rarely question whether there is another way that might be better. We just assume we are doing things the right way. So, if people would truly reflect on this and try to implement even one pillar from The Danish Way—like hygge for example—we are convinced it will help the next generation be happier. It sounds like a lofty ideal, but being an American who has experienced The Danish Way firsthand, I have seen how powerful it can be.”