Sometimes it feels like the UK is at breaking point; what with Brexit, the snap general election and not knowing just who to trust in Line of Duty!
So, it’s not surprising that talk down the pub or the round the office water cooler sometimes flirts with the idea of rounding up the kids and moving somewhere not so disconcerting. Sure, the Maldives would be nice, but a more realistic destination could be the Netherlands.
In 2013, UNICEF rated Dutch children as the happiest in the world - the UK was 16th and the US 26th by the way. Ranked by material wellbeing, health and safety, education, behaviour and risks, and housing and environment, Dutch children were rated in the top 5 of each category. Impressive I think you’ll agree? So what’s behind all this youthful joy? Well, children have little pressure at school when they’re young and don’t actually start any structured learning until they’re 6 (yet still don’t show any academic concerns further down the line), they’re free to cycle to school on their own and join friends as they wish after school, thus producing confident, responsible self-sufficient equals, alcohol, drugs and sex aren’t mysterious taboos so rebellious teens aren’t a huge issue, but here’s the best bit; the Dutch eat chocolate at breakfast (*begins packing bags*)!
Earlier this year, two ex-pats, Michele Hutchison (from the UK) and Rina Mae Acosta (from the US) released The Happiest Kids in The World: Bringing Up Children the Dutch Way, a book that details their lives as mothers in the Netherlands. The book honestly highlights differences, concerns, surprises and benefits between family life in the UK/US and this apparent utopia for the young; the Netherlands. One thing they both conclude from their new lives, is just how happy Dutch children are.
Both Michele and Rina are married to Dutch men, which brings me nicely on to how dads fit into all of this. In the UK, we’re starting to see fathers more heavily involved with their children, what with the rise of modern-day dads. For example, key changes such as shared paternity leave are notable, plus the stereotypes of dads simply being rubbish babysitters are thankfully changing. However, Michele and Rina talk about how dads play a much larger part to family life in the Netherlands, and have done for a long time, so it would seem us Brits have a long way to go yet. I caught up with Michele and Rina and asked them a little more about their husbands and Dutch fathers in general:
Michele / Rina:
What’s a typical week day like for your respective husbands, Martijn and Bram? What are their working hours? When do they get home? How much do they see the kids?
MH: My husband works full-time, which is 36 hours a week in the Netherlands. Since that doesn’t add up to 5 days on a 9-5 basis, he takes alternate Fridays off. These Fridays have traditionally been his ‘papadag’ – his day to look after the kids. It certainly came in handy when they were pre-school age. This made 2 or 3 days at the crèche possible, one day with Dad, one with me and the other day they’d go to my in-laws. A very common arrangement here. Now the kids are older he uses his papadag to catch up on the bills and banking and to do the weekly shop.
RA: My husband Bram doesn’t have stereotypical work hours because he owns an IT firm. He does, however, try his best to be an involved father. He’s in charge of mornings - preparing breakfast, getting the kids ready for the day, and dropping the oldest at school. Though he can’t make it home for weekday dinners on a regular basis (we eat at 5:00 pm), he tries his best to tuck them in bed every night at 7:00 pm.
And the same question, but for the weekend… how much time do they spend with the family? Does their work spill over to the weekend at all?
MH: As a recovering workaholic, I now make sure I don’t work at all at weekends. Martijn, on the other hand, enjoys his job and argues that reading and dealing with his emails out of work is a pleasurable activity that he is not prepared to cut down on. He tends to do this when the kids are already in bed though.
These days I get blissfully relaxed Saturday mornings all to myself. My son takes himself off to his dance academy on the other side of town and my husband takes Ina to her weekly football match. Everyone gets back about lunchtime. In the meantime, I’ll have had a lie in or a long bath and read a book or the papers
RA: My husband tries his best to leave work behind him on the weekends unless there is a work emergency. Saturdays are my husband's official "Papadag." Saturdays are his ‘Papadag’ in which he is the one in charge of the kids and all the household responsibilities that come with it, diapers and all. A typical Saturday for our family is doing a week's worth of groceries in the morning and then a trip to the local zoo in the afternoon. And if they still have time, they'll do some gardening before dinner - mowing the lawn, pulling out weeds, and watering the plants. The boys look forward to it all week.
When your children were born, how much time off did they take? Was there any pressure from work when they were off?
MH: My husband took a week off each time but the kraamzorg (maternity nurses that come to your home each day) were the real life-savers. Dutch paternity leave is one of the areas that could be improved here, the Scandinavians are really leading the way in that. That said, whenever the children were sick, it was possible for Martijn to take a day off work to look after them without any kind of comments being made. The same went for me when I had an office job. We’d alternate. These days the kids are hardly ever ill.
RA: Because my husband is an entrepreneur with a small growing company, he couldn't take time off work completely after the boys were born. He did, however, take the first three weeks after the kids were born to work from home and help out when he could.
What kind of activities would Martijn and Bram do with the children?
MH: Nothing special, generally low-key stuff, doing the weekly shop with the kids in tow, or visiting the local park or petting zoo. We’ve always had a subscription to Artis, Amsterdam zoo, so that used to be a favourite. It’s more about spending time together than making the time spent special here.
RA: Like Michele's Dutch husband, nothing special really. It's more about doing low-key stuff together and simply spending time with the boys. We also have a subscription to Amersfoort zoo and a museum card. The children love it when he reads books to them, play with blocks and legos, and just randomly talk about whatever comes to the minds of an almost two and five-year-olds.
In the UK, there’s this perception of dads being simply babysitters when mum needs to go out, or they might be the disciplinarian of the family. Are such views shared at all in the Netherlands?
MH: Not really.
RA: The Dutch are an egalitarian society, even more so with the millennial generation of fathers who practice a more hands-on approach and believe in being equal partners in childrearing. Disciplining the children is a shared responsibility, albeit it's more about teaching the kids boundaries and respect rather than punishing.
How would you describe Martijn’s and Bram’s style of parenting?
RA: Bram's style of parenting is definitely authoritative. The boys love to play with him but also see him as an authoritative figure. He's an involved father who invests a lot in his relationship with the boys. I admire him a lot for being able to juggle a demanding career and still finding the time and energy to be a great dad.
Would Martijn/Bram swap any Dutch parenting styles for what they know about family life in the UK/US?
MH: Martijn is an Anglophile and would love quiet, well-mannered, polite children. He’ll just have to make do with spontaneous, happy Dutch kids though!
RA: While my husband loves American culture (it’s one of the things about me that attracted him in the first place), he’d rather raise his kids in the Netherlands. He loves and appreciates how children on this side of the pond can still have carefree childhoods without too much pressure for academic excellence, and simply being children being allowed to be children.
If British or America dads could do one thing to ‘go more Dutch’, what would it be?
MH: Just spend more time with your kids doing simple things, you don’t have to make the time ‘special’, spend lots of money or travel to activity parks.
RA: I completely agree with Michele. It's not about making "special time" for your kids as much as just being present, enjoying the small, ordinary moments in life and talking to your kids.
How much of the father’s role contributes to how happy Dutch children are?
MH: Spending more time with both parents raises happiness levels and improves the relationship with that parent, whether mum or dad. Dutch children from 11-15 years old surveyed by HBSC scored the highest in the world in having a good relationship with their parents and being comfortable talking to both their mum and dad. The more time spent with dad, the better they were able to communicate with him.
The differences between raising children in the Netherlands and the UK/US are clear, but on reflection don’t seem that unachievable. If we want to raise similarly confident and rounded children changes could be made to education and how children are viewed in the family and as part of wider society. However, it’s not quite as simple as that due our culture being so heavily lead by material wealth, social media and keeping up with the Joneses, instead of family time, outside play and non-pressured education. So perhaps us Brits aren’t ever going to change, but us dads can certainly help by going just a little bit Dutch with our parenting style. We’ll reap the benefits by spending more time with the children, and err, did someone say chocolate for breakfast?
The Happiest Kids in The World: Bringing Up Children the Dutch Way is available now from all good book stores (and some rubbish ones).