When American mom and columnist, Jessica Alexander, visited Denmark she noticed how Danish children were much more calm and hardly ever threw tantrums. Their parents talked to them in a calm way without yelling. There seemed to be an unspoken Danish way of parenting and together with psychotherapist and family counselor, Iben Sandahl, she set out to investigate how the Danes raised happy and balanced kids. Based on more than thirteen years of experience, research, supporting studies and facts this resulted in a book about how the happiest people in the world raise their children.
The Danish Way of Parenting is my new parenting bible. As a Dane raising my children abroad I am eager to bring this parenting style with me and raise happy little Danes. To me the book is very useful and keeps me straight when I doubt my instincts surrounded by different cultural practices. But the book might be even more useful to non-Danes who wishes more calm, independent, creative children who do not constantly need entertainment and praise. In short, The Danish Way Of Parenting provides clear guidelines on how to give your children a strong sense of self-worth and inner drive by having healthy social and emotional bonds. Even if you are only able to follow a few of the guidelines the authors write that you will still see results. And sure enough, after I read it the first time a year ago my children hardly ever have tantrums anymore and when they do I know how to deal with them in an understanding and helpful way so we do not end up in power struggles. This does not mean I am the model Danish parent at all and I still have lots to work on as most of us probably do…
I will try to give you a brief idea of what the Danish way is about – the brief part will be a challenge for me as I can go on and on and I wish to share every single insight I gained from this book with you (I actually found myself clapping to myself and texting friends in excitement while reading it, just to give you an idea of how much I love it)!
The book is very clearly written and divided into what the authors find are the six keys to Danish parenting following the letters in PARENT (Play, Authenticity, Reframing, Empathy, No Ultimatums, Togetherness/Hygge).
The P in PARENT stands for “Play”. Free, unstructured play is valued very highly in Denmark. It is children’s way of learning important life skills. Through play they learn to adapt and approach a problem in flexible ways. By learning how to get along with each other and figuring things out on their own children build a strong foundation for dealing with difficult people and challenging, stressful situations later in their adult life. Danish children are allowed to develop in their own pace with less pressure to perform which helps them develop self-esteem and reduce anxiety. I could go on and on about the value of play and I cannot help but think about the high amount of innovation coming from a small population of 5.5 million Danes (LEGO, all that design…). Could it have something to do with Danes allowing children the time to let their own mind create new worlds through play? So definitely, make sure your children are allowed time and space to just play. For this to happen it is necessary to turn off or limit screen-time (so hard, believe me I know…)
The next letter in PARENT is A for “Authenticity”. Danes tend to be pretty honest and will not tell you that “everything is great” if it is not. They embrace all emotions, also the so-called negative ones in themselves and in their children. This makes children feel safe because they are still loved when they are sad or angry. Moreover, this emotional authenticity makes them stronger because they will be able to follow their own true emotions later in life, instead of trying to make other people happy and acting “the right way”.
Another thing I found extremely interesting was the authors’ point about praise and authenticity. In America, children are, generally speaking, praised for even minor accomplishments. In Denmark, parents tone the praise down and focus on the effort that was put into something. In this way children learn that no one is inherently smart or good at something but that learning new things is a process involving hard work. I personally tend to praise my children for every single drawing they make and I have to keep reminding myself to ask them to tell me about the drawing instead of automatically praising it. This actually produced a really interesting story from my five-year old who told a long story about two royal children just by telling me about her picture! I would never have discovered what goes on inside her head if I had just told her it was a “great drawing”.
R for “Reframing” is about putting things into perspective. Apparently Danes are good at reminding themselves and their kids that things could be worse. So for example if a child played badly at a soccer game you remind them that they played well the weekend before and at least they did not break a leg or something like that. Danes are “realistic optimists” which means that they do not ignore negative things but remind themselves that another more positive side of the problem also exists. Like when it is cold and dark outside Danes will say that at least it is not raining or they will say it is perfect weather for hygge/coziness inside. There is so much power in how we talk and think about things.
“E” stands for Empathy. Modern society and especially American society focuses a lot on individual happiness whereas research has shown that we gain more happiness by not just thinking about our own but also other people’s happiness. Danes try to point out the good in others instead of giving them a negative label. Parents model empathy by hardly ever judging others (i.e. maybe the angry woman in the supermarket just had a bad day). Likewise they try to empathize with the whole range of their own and their children’s emotions. It is natural to feel anger and jealousy and the best way to handle those emotions is to face them and talk about them instead of labelling someone as a “difficult child” etc.
“N” is for No Ultimatums. The authors call Danish parents “authoritative” which means they set rules but are still understanding and responsive. This is different from authoritarian parents who demand without responding. Danish parents believe that children are inherently good and that bad behavior does not mean a child is a bad child, it is merely the behavior that is undesirable. What is called “the terrible twos” in America is called “trodsalder” (“the boundary age”) in Denmark. This is a good example of how Danish parents view it as normal for two-year olds to push boundaries whereas Americans focus on how annoying and terrible it is for the parents. It is very helpful to remind yourself of how children at that age have a natural developmental need to push boundaries instead of viewing it as misbehavior to be punished. By modeling respect and calmness parents receive the same behavior from their children. For how can we expect calm children if we are not calm ourselves? Being a good role model seems to be the most important part of parenting as your children will mirror themselves in you. So modeling self-control is much more efficient than ultimatums and punishments.
Last but not least comes T for “Togetherness” or the popular concept of hygge! Danes have a good understanding of the importance of close social bonds and they value good times with close family and friends very high. In fact, Danish families can just hang out and relax together for extended periods of times. At first, this seemed strange to the American author of this book because her American family would quickly get annoyed with each other and need a break and she could not understand how her Danish family-in-law was able to cozy around each other without more drama. The core of hygge/togetherness is to make sure that everyone feels good and to think as a “we” not an “I” – everyone’s happiness matters and it is not hygge if one person only cares about themselves or if there is drama. Hygge is thinking as a group and putting negative things aside.
I love the authors’ point that: “If you substitute “We” for “I”, even “illness” becomes “wellness”. Strong social ties are so important for our happiness, health and ability to function well in the world.
At first sight the Danish way might seem a little soft but in the long run it really works! The Danish Way of Parenting is not only a great parenting book, it is also a guide to become happier and stronger as individuals and as a family unit. It has become a global success and parents all over the world are following the methods and even forming groups to support each other in practicing the Danish Way. As a matter of fact, I would love to form a group like that both locally and online. So contact me if you are interested (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Now, I will just recommend everyone to go out and buy this book or check out The Danish Way of Parenting’s website with lots of great articles and helpful advice:
The Danish way website
You can also look out for my interview with the two authors of The Danish Way of Parenting coming up on this blog in the near future.