What Danish Mothers Know About No Ultimatums Parenting

Written by Katie Hintz-Zambrano
9:00 am
09/21/15

Photographed by Sabrina Bot

We all want our kids to be happy. And happiness is something the Danes have supposedly figured out, with research consistently showing that residents of Denmark are among the happiest in the world. So, it’s not a huge surprise that an article we published on Danish parenting tips has proved to be one of our most-read. Due to this popularity, we decided to do a deep-dive into some of the bigger philosophies rooted in Danish culture with The Danish Way of Parenting authors Jessica Alexander and psychotherapist Iben Sandahl leading the way. Last month we discussed the importance of teaching empathy, and the month before, the power of play. This time around we’re talking to the authors about the Danes’ belief in no ultimatums.

How would you describe parenting with no ultimatums?
“It’s essentially governing with respect and not resorting to screaming, spanking, or shaming to get results. It is seeing children as intrinsically good and basing reactions to them on that knowledge. By looking to Denmark, we can see that this kind of parenting approach absolutely works in raising happy, confident adults. Teach respect, be respectful, and you will be respected are the main guidelines. It is worth noting that spanking has been illegal in Denmark for over 20 years. All Danes we interviewed considered it an unthinkable form of disciplining for a child.”

What’s so problematic with using ultimatums?
“Giving ultimatums to children essentially puts parents in a position where there has to be a winner and a loser. No one really likes to be given an ultimatum because it is always a power struggle. It never offers a win/win solution. What parents don’t realize is that they are often the ones who end up losing with this method, even if they feel they win in the moment. They lose closeness, because governing with threats and fear does not beget closeness. They lose respect, because children learn that boundaries don’t mean anything if parents don’t follow through with their threats. And they can lose perspective, thanks to getting bogged down with the battles instead of the war—the big lines of parenting. What is interesting to consider about using ultimatums is that it seems to be very tied to how we ourselves were raised. Most of the language we use with our children is inherited from our own parents. Many of us were raised with fear-based parenting and ultimatums, which is a very common American style of parenting. Therefore, it is understandable that we have nothing else in our mental toolbox when we get stressed. Knowing this makes it easier to be aware of why we are using ultimatums, yelling, or spanking and how we can start to make a conscious effort to change.”

How is no ultimatums parenting tied to the overall Danish parenting style?
“The Danes are a very democratic and empathic people and it’s no secret that the seeds are sewn very young. Children are respected as having a voice. They are seen as a growing equal in need of guidance, not a kid in need of control and discipline. How you see children has a direct affect on how you treat them. For example, one interesting difference in Danish language is that the term ‘terrible two’s’ doesn’t exist. Instead, they call it ‘trodsalder’ or ‘the boundary age.’ Thus, pushing boundaries is seen as normal and welcomed, not terrible. This makes a tremendous difference in how parents see and react to toddler behavior. Children are also listened to at all ages. They are constantly given explanations, even before they have words. This has a huge impact on a child’s sense of core self. A strong sense of core self comes from questioning and understanding what rules are, why they exist, and then truly incorporating them and valuing them. Being afraid of something called a rule is very different. With fear, the child won’t always know the reason he or she shouldn’t do something, they merely want to avoid being hurt or yelled at. This doesn’t foster closeness and trust, particularly down the road in the teen years. The investment in respect pays off in the long run. This is not to say that Danes are permissive or weak. Not at all! They establish clear rules and guidelines that children are expected to follow. However, they are very responsive to their children’s questions about the rules. They don’t immediately offer them an ultimatum if they don’t follow them, but rather try harder to help them understand why they should. This takes practice, but you absolutely can get better at it. Even without words you can make children understand reasons for rules. The truth is, children can understand so much. It is often in our own impatience, default settings, and unawareness of the ineffectiveness of fear-based parenting that make us fall back on ultimatums.”

How can other cultures implement the no ultimatums approach?
“There are so many ways! The main thing is to know the big lines, i.e. the values you and your partner feel are the most important and how you want to encourage and reinforce those. One of those values should ultimately be to maintain an atmosphere of respect, not fear. Make an agreement that if you or your partner is losing control of yourself, the other one helps take over (when possible). Remember, you don’t have to fight every battle. You just have to stay focused on the big lines. Try to stay calm and forget what others think. Often we get stressed around our own families and friends because we feel judged and this puts us on edge to make our kids behave. Children sense your stress and this can make them act out. You don’t have to prove anything to anyone. Teach respect, be respectful, and you will be respected. Maybe forcing them to finish their peas right now because you said so isn’t the most respectful request? Think about where and how you want to enforce the big lines. Do you want to do this in front of others, where you may also be stressed? Your big lines and your relationship to your child are what really matter. Another important tip: Have empathy for your children. Are they hungry? Tired? Upset? The more you understand the reason behind their behaviors, the stronger your relationship will be. Every age has a theme of what can be expected from it. The more you know about this, the easier it is to see your child’s behavior as normal and healthy, not terrible and annoying. How you choose to see your child will always affect your reaction to them. A problem is only a problem if it referred to as a problem. The cycle of what you give will come back to you. Good begets good, bad begets bad, out of control begets out of control, and calm begets calm.”

Think ultimatums could be a thing of the past in your own household? Let us know in the comments below.

For more Danish parenting advice, scoop up The Danish Way Of Parenting: A Guide To Raising The Happiest Kids in the World. You can also visit Alexander’s website and Facebook page.

Leave a Comment

44 comments

Brooke march

This is Parenting By Connection in the US. Same philosophy lots of tangible examples on their website http://www.handinhandparenting.org

It’s absolutely possible to have clear boundaries without threats and fear or ultimatums.

Valerie

I have recently in the last year become a single mom with two little ones 3 & 5. I find that because of my own stress in dealing with my divorce that I have definitely found myself using ultimatums, and I cringe inside every time I hear the words leave my lips. I don’t have at the moment someone who can step in and take over when I’m feeling overwhelmed. What are some go to phrases to use in these situations to avoid ultimatums? I find that in my moments of weakness the ultimatums come out around dinner time, cleaning up, rushing out the door somewhere, and bedtime craziness when they won’t settle down.
Thank you
Valerie

    Jay

    What a stressful time you’re navigating. So hard.

    I would talk to your kids in a calm, pleasant moment – maybe over an ice cream treat or on a car trip. Tell them sometimes you raise your voice when you don’t mean to, and you’re working to get better at it. Then talk about one of the times or behaviors that triggers you and ask them how you can make that work better as a family. Even at 3 and 5, they may have good ideas. For dinnertime I strongly suggest giving everyone a snack as soon as you walk in the door – maybe cheese or carrots or fruit that would otherwise be part of dinner – to take the edge off that awful hungry end-of-day nutsiness.

    This is also where mindfulness can be helpful. I know that’s a ridiculous things to suggest to someone who is already overloaded. What you’re really looking for is the ability to be aware of your own reactions and redirect yourself, and that’s mindfulness. So anything you can do to care for yourself will make these difficult times go better.

    And three doesn’t last forever. Thank God :)

    Leith

    Oh, Valerie – it is like we are living parallel lives!!

Jag

It’s so interesting

Nathalie

Like most advice on positive parenting, it sounds great, but how does it apply to real life, stressful situations, dangerous situations, and how is it possible to be understanding ,empathic, and open to our children’s needs without becoming their servants?

    Lane

    I’m at ruffling to understand how “being empathetic” translates to “servitude.” It’s a bit troubling that you see it that way.
    You don’t “become their servants” by thinking about their needs-that’s what you’re supposed to be doing as a parent to begin with. They aren’t mindless accessories, they are little people who depend on you for almost every single need they have.
    Your kid tries to stick his finger in an electrical socket, so you hit him. If he’s too young to talk about the danger, I can guarantee that you hitting him is all he is focusing on, not that the socket was wrong. If he is old enough to understand, you’re still a jerk for hitting instead of talking.

    kamo

    Hi! For all things positive parenting, I go to ahaparenting.com, run by Laura Markham. She is so practical – like she always gives examples and scripts. And really truly she can guide you through any situation. For example, in an emergency (like if your kid is about to run into the road and there’s a car coming), then yes you have to use physical force and pick them up / block them from going. But as Markham says, it’s rarely an emergency … the real “emergency” is in our emotional reactions as parents – we (North Americans anyway) tend to often inflame situations because we react so strongly. Due to how we were raised.

    Anyways – if you have time and are serious about this I so strongly recommend her site and books (she has two), and also her online parenting course. I’ve taken it three times and it’s totally changed everything for me. Work in progress :) Good luck!!!

Christin Kuck

There is a problem with this scenario: “Children are respected as having a voice. They are seen as a growing equal in need of guidance, not a kid in need of control and discipline.” In my opinion, children do need control. They need to feel in the fact that their parents set rules, and if they break the rules, there are consequences. This is training them for adulthood. I remember very specifically my husband having a calm conversation with our four year old daughter about staying in our yard. He showed her our yard’s boundaries lines. He explained the safety reasons for staying in the yard. A few days later, he found her over at the neighbor’s house playing on their trampoline. There had to be consequences for her actions so that she understood. Children are not equal to adults. Their brains have not developed enough to make certain decisions about their life. They will grow into adults who must understand consequences in order to function in an adult world.

In the same token, I gave my children rewards for good behavior. I specifically remember my children bringing home their report cards, and their father and I taking them out to dinner at Pizza Hut. This reward was not because of their grades, but because their teachers gave them praise on their good behavior. I made sure they understood why we were treating them to a night out to celebrate.

I’m also going to interject that trying to use Danish patterns of raising children in the U.S. won’t work. If everyone was on board, then it might work, but we are a melting pot of different cultures, and each culture has it’s views on raising children. We could all follow the authoritarian style of parenting the Chinese use and have brilliant overachieving children. I don’t think one style fits all.

    Linda

    I agree with you that it is really difficult introducing a style of parenting which differs from the cultural norm. Our learned responses, especially during periods of high stress come from his we ourselves were parented, which was often the accepted norm of the day. However, when we view our world around us and see that perhaps a lot of adults are not coping well, we perhaps should question that intrinsic parenting norm. I agree with the article that children should not be treated as incomplete adults, but as children who have views, ideas and, as unpopular as thjs may be to some people, rights. Children ‘s brains are not fully reveal you pointed out, which is why they need adult guidance to ensure they are safe. There is a lot of research on brain science which clearly shows the negative.impact of trauma on the developing brain. I am not claiming that giving your child an isolated smack in the kg is traumatic enough to cause these changes in the brain, but it most certainly does not help. I think pare ts would be wise to read some of John Bowings attachment theories and look into current research around brain development when they are grappling with the raising issues.

Melissa

Very helpful, thank you! I hope this reaches far and wide.

Nicole

This all sounds great but what do you do when your toddler kicks your baby’s head into a wall or slams the door on their fingers or pulls the baby down by their ankles from a standing position?

    kamo

    Check out Laura Markham – ahaparenting.com – kids “act out” their emotions that they haven’t been able to feel (process). Markham has SO much to say about how to help your toddler and end that kind of behaviour. It’s all about their relationship with you and how secure they feel. Sibling rivalry is totally normal, but it can be guided and eased by parents who are responsive to their kid’s fears and help them feel all those yucky scary emotions and then set limits on their behaviour. Good luck!!

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