Parents and Pre-Schools Emphasize Play, Empathy Over Competition
By: Bianca Hillier
Edited and produced by: Olivia Miltner
In March of 2016, the United Nations named Denmark the “Happiest Country in the World” for the fourth time in five years. People attribute this to their Big Government and social-welfare state, but, can government systems be the sole factor in determining people’s happiness? At the end of the day, the government is not the one raising the children, teaching them manners or how to play: it’s the parents and early-childhood educators who do so.
Danes “strive to treat children with respect first and foremost,” said Iben Sandahl, Danish-raised mother and author of The Danish Way of Parenting. “We don’t want blind obedience, but rather we listen when our children have something to say or question something.”
In an email, Sandahl said mutual respect is fundamental in the country’s typical parenting style, but there are many strategies used to raise children. Her acronym, P.A.R.E.N.T., describes them.
“P for play … A is for authenticity … and R is for reframing,” Sandahl said. “E is for empathy … N for no ultimatums … and T is for togetherness. By being honest with ourselves, and our children, we are creating a much stronger internal compass in our kids because they learn to trust their emotions. [We also] foster a growth mind-set rather than a fixed mind-set, which contributes to a more persistent, deeply confident and resilient individual.”
|A girl runs with the Danish flag on her birthday. |
Photo courtesy Lars Plougmann via Flickr.
“We don’t want blind obedience, but rather we listen when our children have something to say or question something.”The backbone of this philosophy dates back to 1871. However, it has evolved over time; in the 1930s, a fictional novel told a story called The Law of Jante.
“It is a list of Scandinavian social commandments,” Michael Booth, a Danish author who has written about the Law, said in an email. “Although fictional, it has subsequently become a core, defining creed for Scandinavians: ‘You’re not to think you are anything special; You’re not to think anyone cares about you; You’re not to think you are good at anything; and so on.”
These commandments starkly contrast with traditional American upbringing, Sandahl said.
“[Americans] want to be more special, more individual,” Sandahl said. “[Americans] are, by nature, competitive because you are raised to know that the ‘better kids” get rewards, praise, trophies, love, their pictures on the walls, etc. That is very different from us.”
Booth said The Law of Jante teaches modesty, humility and equality. However, 22-year-old Dane Tine Meidahl Münsberg said self-confidence and trust were equally as important in her upbringing.
“My parents taught me to be self-confident and believe in myself by always letting me know that they believed in me and telling me that if I did my best, then it was good enough,” Münsberg said. “They also always trusted me.”
These values are also largely emphasized in the Danish daycare system.
In Denmark, daycare is not just somewhere kids go while parents work, but rather it is an important part of their upbringing. According to the Danish Ministry for Children, Education and Gender Equality, 97 percent of kids go to daycare — even the children of the Royal Family. This high percentage is because people give up to 60 percent of their salary to taxes, therefore both parents have to work in order to make enough money.
What do they teach?
“The Danish approach to child rearing highly values play, creativity and a child perspective,” Ida Elbaek, member of the Department of Education and Daycare at the MCEGE, said in an email. “Days are usually organized thematically, thus leaving time for following the children’s interests and mood of the day. As such, ‘lesson time’ is an unknown-phenomena in Danish daycares, and is often frowned upon as the Danish tradition.”
|Children bundle up to show their Danish pride. |
Photo via Getty Images.
“When it was raining or snowing we would just be wearing a lot of clothes,” Münsberg said. “I think entertaining yourself as a kid is an important lesson, which we did most of the time I spend in day care.”
Daycare is also where 23-year-old Danish student Thorbjørn Andersson said he learned social skills.
“We, as a society, are very multi-cultural, so kids learn to be way more tolerant,” Andersson said.
"‘Lesson time’ is an unknown-phenomena in Danish daycares, and is often frowned upon as the Danish tradition.”Aside from play, empathy is the second most significant lesson taught in daycare. As early as pre-school, national programs facilitate understanding and discussing empathy.
“Children are shown cards with faces on them and get children to talk about what emotion the faces may be exhibiting and why they might feel that way,” Sandahl said. “This helps build up a vocabulary for young children around emotions and talking about feeling for others. Empathy has been proven to be one of the key factors in improving happiness.”
The Hygge Philosophy
Despite the different settings of homes and daycares, the Scandinavian phenomenon “hygge” is a common thread between the two.
“In daycares it could be before the kids are going to take their nap, when we all sit together and read a book or something: that’s hygge.”
“Hygge is a part of our identity—it’s about leaving stress, problems, judging and complaining at the door for a period of time so that you can enjoy real quality connected moments,” Sandhal said. “Children love being in this space because they enjoy connected togetherness with their families that isn’t laced with negativity.”
|Danes celebrate Christmas. |
Photo courtesy Thomas Rousing via Flickr.
To Münsberg, hygge means having a good time with either friends or family, regardless of the setting.
“In daycares it could be before the kids are going to take their nap, when we all sit together and read a book or something: that’s hygge,” she said. “In my home, though, hygge is usually in the evenings when we get hot chocolate and ice cream in front of a fire.”
Andersson echoed this sentiment, saying he finds explaining the concept difficult.
“You can't describe hygge—it’s a sensation that we all get when we are around certain people, in certain circumstances,” Andersson said. “We were just the first to have a word for it.”
Exact origins of Denmark’s coveted “happiest” title may never be clear; it’s attribution, though, is not what matters. The significance placed on these aspects of Danish culture — and the country’s dedication to them — is what makes Denmark the title’s top contender for generations to come.