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Why Dutch Kids are Happier Than Yours

Lauren Comiteau. July 11, 2007

Dutch children are the happiest children in the industrialized world. Don't take my word for it, that was the finding of an extensive survey in UNICEF's Report Card 7.

The Netherlands, my adopted home and birthplace of my children beat out the competition in a study that took account of material well-being, health and safety, education, family and peer relationships, behaviors and risks, and their own perceptions of their well-being. The U.S. by contrast finished second to last ahead of Britain.

So, what's the secret of Dutch happiness?

"I suppose teens are happy for the same reasons adults are," says Ruut Veenhoven, professor of social conditions for human happiness at Rotterdam's Erasmus University. "Holland is a livable, rich, free, well-governed country. People are happy in those conditions."

And their positive Dutch outlook is fostered in the education system.

"I think in Holland, we are very open with our children," says Esther van der Zaag, who teaches my four-year-old at Amsterdam's ASVO primary school. "There are rules, but not too many... Play is the most important thing to learn. We teach them through play, not through rules."

Play gives way, further up the education ladder, to learning based on conversation and consensus:

"Sometimes the Dutch are criticized for too much negotiation, for not being strict enough or not having rules," says Tom van Veen, a father, teacher and co-principal at Het Amsterdams Lyceum.

He says Dutch children are encouraged to form and express their own opinions.

"They're used to negotiating at home. In school, too, it's not just, 'Here are the rules, follow them.' It's a good thing, but it is tiring."

The same model of consensus decision-making pervades the highest levels of Dutch politics and corporate culture.

A group of 12-year olds I cornered for an impromptu opinion poll outside their public school enthused about their teachers, their friends and their school work. Their only complaints about life in Holland? The drunks in the park, and the rain.

The freedom allowed to Dutch high schoolers would shock their American counterparts. The country's legal drinking age is 16, so at school parties at least in Van Veen's school kids 16 and over are allowed to drink beer and wine, although no hard liquor, in what he calls "a controlled setting."

Fifteen-year-old Tess ten Pos, who I find sipping a latte with friends in a cafe during a break from morning classes, agrees.

"When we read in English class about coma drinking in the States, it's crazy! We don't do that here."

"There is more freedom here," agrees 17-year old Karima Adda, whose father came from Morocco more than 30 years ago. "You can't wear short clothes, smoke or drink in Morocco, so that makes me happier here."

Despite exceptions like Karima, who plans to be a doctor, immigrant children are less likely to get the best of Holland's impressive levels of investment in children. A recent city-wide survey of Amsterdam primary schools revealed that children of Moroccan and Turkish descent were being directed to lower-level schools than their Dutch counterparts, despite scoring identically on the all-important placement exams.

Says Sahro Ahmed, a Somali researcher at Leiden University,

"Dutch education is meant for Dutch people. Somali people have a different framework. They don't fit in. The Dutch think: You're black, your mother wears a veil, you talk funny, you're not articulate. You're not going to make it in Dutch schools."
As a result, she says,
"our children are learning how to make tables, cupboards and coffins. But Somalis want their children to be pilots and doctors, too."

Despite the raw deal experienced by many immigrants, the Dutch social system, with its extensive support structures and family-friendly work ethic, is clearly designed to make parenting as painless as possible.

"If you're happier, it's easier to bring that over to your kids," says Clemens Klein Goldewijk, father of two.

Dutch parenting is largely shared, and in the professional classes, most women and men work only four days a week, each devoting their free day to the kids. That means young children spend only three days a week at child-facilities which are employer-subsidized. So, what's not to be happy about? (Did I mention free health care until the age of 18?)

"Both parents want to have a role in their kids' lives," says Van Veen. "It's fun, interesting, and over before you know it."

And obviously, beneficial for the kids. Ninety percent of Dutch families still eat their main meal together around a table several times a week. Compare that to 65.7 percent of Americans.

The real source of Dutch happiness, of course, will remain a mystery. Professor Veenhoven says that although people know they're happy, they never really know why. Not that it matters:

"It's good to be happy," says Veenhoven. "Happy people are nicer, more productive, better citizens, healthier. If you're happy, you live longer."

That's certainly an argument for raising my own kids here. They look Dutch, speak Dutch and, admittedly, they're from the right side of the canal. But maybe more importantly, they're on the right side of the pond.

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