The Happiest Kids in the World

In late March, I caught a tweet from Chris Bruntlett, an urbanist and cycling expert in Vancouver, BC. He pointed out a new book that he was excited to read –  The Happiest Kids in the World.

The topic and the context of the topic instantly piqued my interest. A book about parenting in the context of my ancestral homeland? Perfect. I immediately pre-ordered it and waited for its delivery. I buy many books (many more than Christa would like sometimes), but I rarely follow through with a full reading of a book. I’m happy to say that I actually read this entire book within a week. I also managed to take 6 pages of notes while reading, which is really too many to summarize in a single blog post.

My suggestion is to pick up a copy for yourself and read it. Now. But I will offer some context as to why it piqued my interest so, and also summarize some points about why I loved it.

First: Gezellig. I’ve loved this word since I first learned it during my first visit to the Netherlands in January of 2000. The word has no direct English translation – it encompasses a variety of themes of Dutch life. The book explains gezellig in two ways, the second of which is particularly poignant, gezellig is a feeling, not word:

Gezellig evokes feelings of coziness, warmth, belonging, love, happiness, security, contentment, safety and companionship.

[Gezellig is] the feeling you get when you’re sitting by the fire surrounded by loved ones, drinking hot chocolate and eating marshmallows.

The concept of gezellig runs deep in The Happiest Kids in the World. Making a gezellig life for our children is the means to the end; it is raising happy, independent, secure children.

Second: Some Dutch context about me. If you’re new to me, I must admit that I may have some personal bias toward agreeing with, and promoting, the Dutch life. I am 3rd generation Dutch-American, with both my father and mother’s families being Dutch. I grew up in Holland, Michigan; a solidly Dutch-American town (if the name didn’t give it away…). One could argue that Holland, MI is the most Dutch-connected American town (sorry Pella).

But knowing my personal history and potential bias, I was still surprised by how little I had connected my own childhood to that of a true Dutch childhood. My parents and many of my friends’ parents raised us in Dutch fashion. We ate hagelslag (and I still do); we freely roamed the neighborhood by bike and on foot, in creeks and on streets; we rode our bikes to Central Park grocery with free abandon. We were given rules and yet flexibility. The corollaries are impressive, even being thousands of miles and multiple generations away. To this, I say a hearty thank you to my parents and to many of the others in West Michigan.

Third: Family. The Dutch family unit is strong, regardless of the make-up. One of my favorite parts of the book relates back to hagelslag and why it’s important:

  • It’s not about the chocolate, “it’s more about the fact that the Dutch eat breakfast as a family.”
  • “In no other country do families eat breakfast together regularly as they do in the Netherlands.”
  • “But the real point is that they put as much value on the idea of starting the day together around the breakfast table, a calming and bonding experience for all the family.”
  • Hagelslag is about self-confidence – “my three-year old son is content and proud to be able to choose and prepare his own breakfast.”
  • “‘We believe it’s crucial to take the time to have breakfast and dinner together, so we can listen to each other, share our experiences, talk about what’s going on in the world and put it into a wider context,’ Carel van Eck, a Dutch father of two, tells me.”
  • “Sitting down around the table as a family is less about what’s on the table than the fact of sitting around it to talk. A family dinner is about gezelligheid. Many Dutch parents see it as a basic rule: The family eats together.” (Emphasis added)

Fourth: On bike riding, specifically:

  • “The Dutch Union of Cyclists promotes cycling ‘because it makes you happy and improves your health.'”
  • Cycling teaches grit – “All-weather cycling is a truly character-forming experience.”
  • No need for helmets – “children are more careful when they don’t feel protected.” AND “cyclists who do not wear them have been found to act more cautiously in traffic.”
  • “Best mode of transport for all.”

Fifth: Being a Dutch kid is deeply intertwined with being outside, in active transportation, play, and exploration. This is where Americans will have the toughest time adopting a Dutch parenting style. Our urban and suburban environments are dominated by hard spaces and automobiles. I was able to be relatively “Dutch” as a child because we had slow streets, ample open space nearby, and willing parents. Where we live now, I wouldn’t trust my kids roaming free, not because I don’t trust them, but because I don’t trust drivers. The book talks about risk and relativism, which is a thought process I’ve long been intrigued by since I took a risk/benefit analysis class in grad school. Americans have developed strong fears over events that occur rarely (random kidnapping), and normalized events that occur frequently (30,000+ auto collision deaths/year).

Sixth: Being Dutch is so much more than bike riding and eating chocolate sprinkles. I can’t really begin to summarize all of my notes without just regurgitating the entire book. Here’s a few of my favorite things:

  • Doe maar gewoon dan doe je al gek genoeg – Just act normal, that’s crazy enough.
  • Happiness is life satisfaction – “Schools here invest more energy in motivation than in achievement.”
  • “A teacher is a better judge of a child than a test.”
  • “Punishment will cause a child to adapt their behavior to avoid the punishment but not to learn what they have done wrong.”
  • “Going on vacation is an integral part of life.”
  • Camping. The Dutch LOVE camping – this was also still relevant to my Dutch family and friends in Holland, MI. We took weeks-long camping trips together across the US and Canada, and trips around Michigan as well.
  • Quoting Banksy: ‘A lot of parents will do anything for their kids, except let them be themselves.’
  • “The Dutch believe in learning for its own sake and in order to broaden the mind, not just to pass exams.”
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