How Danish Parents Raise The Happiest Kids In The World

Written by Brittany Poulton
2:45 pm
04/08/15

Photography via Flexa

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.”

For more tips, scoop up The Danish Way of Parenting: A Guide To Raising The Happiest Kids in the World, $12.44, on Amazon. You can also visit Alexander’s website and Facebook page.

Leave a Comment

51 comments

10 Must Read Parenting Books for Raising Multicultural Kids

[…] Another one on this list I haven’t read- yet. I have it on my reading list, obviously, together with countless other books. Basically, this one claims that Danes raise the world’s happiest kids (although I’m sure Finding Dutchland will disagree) and tells you how to do it as well. I must say I’m intrigued and can’t wait to read it. I read the Danish place a lot of emphasis on empathy instead of material goods and they don’t hover as much as Americans do. More about this book here. […]

The Joy Of Raising Happy Children | erstwhile

[…] The Danish Way of Parenting: A Guide to Raising The Happiest Kids In The World and MotherMag.com interviewed her asking, how? I was immediately caught by the title of the book. What mother doesn’t want […]

Nancy

That is a great concept. I have often felt that in our American culture we place great emphasis on achieving or surpassing a gold standard that focuses on individuality.

Leonid

Thanks for this insightful and interesting interview. I think we can learn a lot from the Danes.

I wish the author could also ask some critical questions. What are the drawbacks of the “Danish way of parenting”? Are we talking here about the upper classes or about about all layers of society including working poor and unemployed? How does this relate to rampant xenophobia in modern day Denmark?

When people talk about the happiest people in the world, I always look at suicide rates. According to the WHO, in 2012 Denmark had the 83rd worst suicide rate among the 171 surveyed countries, falling in the upper 50% (http://apps.who.int/gho/data/node.main.MHSUICIDE?lang=en). I think it’s a good question to ask: why the happiest people in the world commit so much suicide?

    Kristian C

    The suicide rate as far as i know, includes greenland which is a part of Danmark in most ways still.

    Never the less, youre right. We do have a high suicide rate and i do not know why either. Its not normal in denmark though.

    As for the xenofobi here. Well its not as bad as many will want you to belive. Its just that the danish culture of trusting people and having a social welfare that Bernie Sanders would love, is quite fragile if too many collects instead of contributing. We are but 5.6 million danes.

Debbie Solomon

I’ve written 3 children’s books that would fit this topic perfectly. Check out my site

debbiesolomon.com

Thanks!!
Debbie

Ditte

Great article! I’m a danish girl, and I just want you to know that ‘hygge’ also can be something you do alone. It is just a word describing a situation where you feel comfortable either doing something you like or makes you feel good, etc.
But I like your perspective on things!

Anastasia

couldnt agree more

Love to share: September 2015 | Dream, smile & love

[…] How Danish parents raise the happiest kids in the world […]

Love to share | Dream, smile & love

[…] How Danish parents raise the happiest kids in the world […]

ALL MATERIAL © MOTHER LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. SITE DESIGNED BY JANE REACTION, DEVELOPED BY BRANDI BERNOSKIE