living life in a multicultural world
Once again UNICEF’s report on where the world’s happiest children are leads us straight to The Netherlands on all fronts, including children’s actual perception of their own happiness.
Being married to a Dutchman and having moved to the land of windmills and tulips recently with our three children, I can give a few good reasons explaining what the Dutch are doing so well to raise children who are happy and well adjusted, besides being relatively good eaters to boot.
Of course there are the obvious reasons. Income inequality is less here and this creates a positive healthy environment where all basic needs are met and opportunity is more easily distributed. The renowned Dutch frugality and penchant for minimalism also helps cut down the number of material goods kids and adults possess and that is a postive thing. Ostentation is generally frowned upon so not too many kids are walking around with an iphone or feeling bad that they don’t have one. The weather is so crumby that the Dutch are slightly obsessed with being outdoors to “get fresh air” the minute it is not pouring. This results in lots of playing outside regardless of the cold or drizzling rain. Other than the runny noses that children constantly wear, this may help the happiness outcome. Working hours/days are flexible in Holland and many parents work 4 days a week each and are able to spend more time with the kids. There is not a culture of fear and liability and this allows children to have more freedom.
But all that aside, there is something else which I think is rather important that may not be easily noticed.
Let me start off by saying that it has always amazed me that such a tiny country as The Netherlands can excel in so many different fields. They have large multinationals like Phillips and Shell and AxzoNobel. They have famous artists like Rembrandt and Van Gogh. They are the world’s leading experts in water management. They are pioneers in wind energy (hello windmills). They are famous for their modern design sensibilities. They bring home Olympic medals in skating and are champions in field hockey, soccer and even baseball (yes, that is not a typo, the Dutch are up there with Americans and Dominicans in the baseball world, who would have thunk it?).
But what the Dutch really excel the most at is thinking they are average.
There is a common Dutch expression which sums it up nicely — “Be normal, because that is strange enough.” Normal is strange enough? Sounds borderline Tea Party to me. And at first read it seems odd for this to be a cliche in a country so open and forgiving of all kinds of strange, exotic behavior. I mean, these are the same people that harbored the subversive Pilgrims for a few years before they embarked to Plymouth Rock, the same people who euphemistically call where you can buy cannabis a “coffee shop” and were gay marriage is a non-issue. How can being “normal” be so prized?
I think being normal in Holland means something slightly different (go figure) than in most places. It means thinking you are not particularly any better than anyone else. Which alternatively also makes you no worse than anyone else. Being normal also means simply to be yourself and respect other people for who they are. Not to look at people from a seemingly higher perspective or with disdain.
Which brings me back, after a slightly longer than intended ramble, to Dutch kids. You see, no one here in Holland is special. No one. Not even kids. And that makes it, well, so special. Children are an integral part of one’s life and attention is paid to them in the larger context of family, but they are not the center of attention because, get this folks — everyone is equally important. That means mom and dad too. And that also means that children don’t have so much pressure. They don’t need to do more, be more, be better. They are less stressed and have more room to be themselves. Oh yes, well, gosh darn it, kids can be kids.
Kids can be kids and parents can be parents — to kids, not parents of kids that need to be groomed to be future CEOs and Doctors. And although I really do miss the times when the teachers of my children in their American schools told me how absolutely wonderful and utterly special my kids were, I also have to admit that I understand that the need we have for everyone to be so “special” in the US creates an atmosphere that is perhaps counterproductive.
I am not better than anyone else and therefore logic should make me realize that my children are not better than anyone else just because I happen to love them so much.
Ok, so we are not special. Hmm….my whole life I was told I was special. Not a little, but a lot special. This new truth is a slight bummer, I admit, but also quite liberating. And imagine the effects on children that parents do not have all these expectations for them. There is so much less burden to carry, so much less possibility to disappoint. Self confidence can blossom in a way that is not possible when special is the norm.
But just because we have established that we are not special does not mean that special does not exist in Holland — in a very average kind of way. The Dutch have a way of taking something rather mundane and elevating it to new heights not by transforming it into something really spectacular but rather by embracing its averageness.
Take Sunday breakfast in my home. My Dutch husband has completely hooked my children into “our Sunday breakfast ritual” and they get really upset if they miss it (like when they are on a Saturday night sleepover). He does not make elaborate culinary concoctions or take us to expensive brunches. He merely gets the kids excited by having everyone help set the table nicely, having some fresh flowers, putting some sliced bread in a nice bread basket and squeezing some damn oranges. This simple ritual is cherished by my children — and it is just a freaking simple breakfast. To be honest, I really did not get it in the beginning. Why did they like it so much? It is really not that special this special breakfast, it is rather average. But being average does not make it any less gezellig, the untranslatable Dutch word for sociable, cozy.
And the thing is is that there is a coziness in being average. There is a certain sense of stability and camaraderie that comes with the knowledge that we are all average. That our particular lives are not so special in the greater scheme of things. And that is OK. Repeat after me. That is OK. There is something so fabulous that comes with this new knowledge of our own averageness. A freedom to be yourself that creates a much more interesting and rich platform to be unique.
So go ahead folks. Knock yourselves out. Go crazy. Be normal. Encourage your kids to strive for (do I dare say it?) average. It just might make you, and them, content — and that is just another word for happy.
It certainly seems to work in The Netherlands.