Mia – July 23, 2018

Last week we took advantage of the beautiful summer weather to see the Troll Hunt exhibit at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle. We got the idea from Farfar, our elderly friend at The Danish Home, who raved about Danish artist Thomas Dambo’s massive wooden “guardians of the forest” after visiting the exhibit with other residents on July 19.

I welcomed the suggestion because it sounded like something all of my kids would enjoy. Now that my oldest, Jake, is about to enter middle school, it’s getting more challenging to find activities that are as appealing to him as they are to Astrid, 9, and Alex, 7.

To be honest, I’m feeling a little out of my depth now that the adolescent years are fast approaching. Not only do I have to consider Jake’s more sophisticated interests, but I’m dreading the competition for grades, test scores and extracurricular achievement that stresses out so many American middle and high school students (and their parents).

A boy sits with his head dead resting on his forearms.

Many teens, particularly in America, experience stress and anxiety trying to keep up with ever demanding schedules and expectations.

“Can we just move to Denmark?” I asked John, my husband. “They have a much more laid back attitude toward competition. In fact, Denmark seems like a child’s paradise compared to what we’ve got here.”

I was thinking of how much fun we had at The Danish Home’s Summerfest last month, when all three kids played as many games as their hearts desired for just $5 each and loaded up on hot dogs, hamburgers and frikadeller, Danish meatballs. It wasn’t quite Tivoli Gardens, but the atmosphere was happy, relaxed and fun for all ages.

It’s true that Denmark has a much different, and potentially healthier, view toward what’s important for children to learn and achieve. While Americans focus on their kids’ individual achievement, Danes emphasize social skills and collective well-being.

From their daycare days forward (and virtually all Danish kids are in daycare while their parents work), kids are discouraged from attempting to outdo each other or to stand out from the crowd in any way. This self-effacing behavior became known as the Law of Jante and has been a cultural hallmark of Denmark and other Scandinavian nations for centuries.

Danish kids aren’t just discouraged from thinking they’re better or smarter or more important than their classmates, they are taught to feel ashamed for such self-aggrandizement. Needless to say, this American mom finds that a very foreign concept.

However, it’s hard to argue with the results the Danes get from elevating the non-competitive group over individual achievement. Denmark has been rated the happiest country in the world for most of the past 40 years and it’s also a technology leader.  Apparently, growing up blissfully “average” hasn’t hurt the Danes psychologically or practically.

Fascinated by a system that seems so contrary to the American way and wanting to learn more, I picked up “The Danish Way of Parenting: A Guide to Raising the Happiest Kids in the World,” by Iben Dissing Sandahl and Jessica Joelle Alexander. The book is organized around the acronym PARENT, which stands for Play, Authenticity, Reframing, Empathy, No Ultimatums and Togetherness.

A toddler boy and toddler girls examine shells on a beach.

Danish parents allow their youngsters more unstructured and unsupervised playtime, resulting in children who are more emotionally secure and resilient.

Danish parenting allows plenty of unsupervised playtime and cozy family time, with an emphasis on the value of teamwork. Danes don’t “helicopter,” overprotecting or overpraising their little darlings, nor do they feel they must spend every waking moment in their company. They’re also not big on corporal punishment (spanking was outlawed in 1984) or issuing ultimatums.

The result is children who grow up resilient and emotionally secure, empathetic and trusting, according to the authors. As a mom who cowers in the face of statistics about the growing number of American teens who are stressed and anxious, I plan to give serious thought to how I can incorporate Danish attitudes into my own parenting.

Chief among them will be lots of time to relax and enjoy, far away from screens and devices, classrooms and competitive sports…in places where kids can spend an unhurried afternoon outdoors, spinning impromptu stories about giant wooden trolls or trying their hand at simple games. And where parents can sit back and give them the freedom to just be kids.