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How To Teach Your Kids Authenticity (Just Like The Danes Do)

Written by Katie Hintz-Zambrano

Photography by Cheri Messerli Photographed by Michelle Drewes

With research consistently showing that residents of Denmark are among the happiest people in the world, it’s no wonder our series on Danish parenting principles with The Danish Way of Parenting author Jessica Alexander has been amongst our most popular. Below, we’re giving the brilliant expat mama the floor once again to discuss another cornerstone of Danish parenting—the importance of teaching authenticity to one’s offspring. It’s a concept Alexander and Iben Sandhal explore in one of the chapters of their best-selling book (now published by Penguin) and it seems to be an especially pressing topic for today’s world. Below, Alexander breaks it all down.

(If you want to keep going with these Dane-centric topics, check out Alexander’s pieces on The Power Of Play, No Ultimatums Parenting, What Danish Parents Know About Teaching Empathy, How Reframing Results In Happy Kids (And Parents), and Hygge a.k.a. “Cozy Time”.)

How do Danes define authenticity?
“Authenticity is about teaching children to recognize and trust their feelings, good and bad, and act in a way that is consistent with their values. It is about creating an inner compass, an authentic self-esteem based on values that becomes the most powerful guiding force in one’s life. Danes cultivate this through exposing children to all of life’s ups and downs, teaching emotional honesty, and using authentic praise.”

Danes are known as the happiest people in the world. How is authenticity tied to happiness?
“It sounds paradoxical, but being exposed to life’s ups and downs (including tragedies) can help us feel gratitude for the simple things we sometimes take for granted. In America, there tends to be more of a focus on the fairytale life, which isn’t a very realistic portrayal of what actually happens. Whether it’s death, sex, or any other difficult subject, Danes are very open to discussing them in an age-appropriate way with children starting from very young. Actually, they don’t see these topics as difficult as such, but rather just a part of what we can expect. This is a much more authentic approach and it creates a deeper sense of humanity, empathy, and resilience.”

Can you give an example of this approach?
“A lot of stories and films in Denmark, for example, don’t have happy endings. The Little Mermaid is actually a Danish fairytale by Hans Christian Andersen. In the original version, the mermaid doesn’t get the prince, but dies of sadness and turns into sea foam. This wasn’t the version Disney wanted to make! Danes don’t believe there are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ emotions or ‘good’ or ‘bad’ endings. There is only a spectrum of changing emotions and outcomes that co-exist in life as naturally as colors co-exist on a color wheel. You can’t have happiness without sadness, just as you can’t have green without blue. Where there is life, there is also death. These are all scenarios that make up our world. When you think of it this way, it’s interesting to consider why happiness became the most acceptable storyline in our culture. Focusing on it too much can actually set us up for disappointment.”

So, it’s all about frank honesty?
“Emotional honesty, not perfection, is what children really need from their parents. This is how they learn to believe in what they feel and calibrate their internal compass with the truth. Many parents feel more comfortable dealing with their children’s successes or happy emotions than they do with their more challenging or upsetting ones. This is partly because our culture values ‘being happy’ so much, and partly because many of us grew up in families where our own feelings were overridden or not reflected back to us. Some of us had overprotective families or fear-based experiences and these can all affect our abilities to be emotionally honest as parents. If you heard, for example, ‘Don’t cry,’ ‘You have nothing to be upset about,’ or ‘Stop being angry’ growing up, then it’s normal to distrust your own feelings as an adult. Instead of checking in with how we really feel and trying to be vulnerable and authentic, many people deny or numb out uncomfortable feelings, but this only creates disconnection with our real needs. Self-deception is the worst kind of deception because it is how we end up on the wrong path in life and become unhappy. Children watch us and learn to do the same.”

What about the Danes’ use of “authentic” praise?
“Danes value humility greatly. This dates far back and is a part of their cultural heritage. This value is tied to an expression they have, called ‘at hvile i sig selv’ or ‘to rest well within yourself.’ This value means knowing yourself so well that you don’t need others to make you feel important or validated. Therefore, they try not to overload their children with compliments. They want them to appreciate the work involved and not feel assessed for everything lest they risk associating performance too much with love. This is a fragile platform to build self-esteem from. Thus, if a child scribbles a drawing the parent wouldn’t say, ‘Wow! That’s amazing! You are such a great artist!’ They would something more like, ‘Why did you use those colors?’ ‘What were you thinking when you drew it?’ or just ‘Thank you.’ Focusing on the task, rather than over complimenting children, is a much more Danish approach. Helping children build on the feeling of being able to master something rather than being a master provides a much more solid foundation to build and grow from. Enjoying the process rather than working for the praise is the wellspring of true happiness. Life is about the journey, after all, not the destination.”

How can parents best teach authenticity and emotional honesty?
“The first step is connecting with our own needs and feelings and learning to express them honestly and directly. This takes work, but the results are definitely worth it! Focusing on things that give you an intrinsic joy helps build a deeper understanding of self. Improving relationships (‘hygge‘), practicing a hobby or meditation, or doing things that are not tied to external approval can all be helpful. Reading stories with children that encompass different aspects of life (the good, the bad, and the ugly) is also a great way to practice authenticity. Remember, American culture has greatly affected our perception of what are the ‘right’ stories to read. Try to choose books outside of your comfort zone and practice sitting with your children and talking about them. This is so connecting and it’s eye opening how much gratitude it can foster in parents in a count-your-blessings kind of way. Some good books to consider are Cry Heart But Never Break, which is a Danish story about death that was translated to English, as well as Hans Christian Andersen’s original stories, like The Little Match Girl, which is very sad and touching. There are also a few good books that talk about sex, such as Where Did I Come From. It’s funny to think that it is the adults that often have the most difficult time talking about different subjects and emotions, not children. Kids are so curious and open! The earlier you start, the easier it is, and this creates a conversation that spans through life rather than one awkward conversation to avoid.”

For more information on this topic and others, check out The Danish Way of Parenting: What the Happiest People in the World Know About Raising Confident, Capable Kids. You can also visit Alexander’s website and Facebook page.

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