(As previously published on Time.com, September 15, 2015 http://time.com/4033896/how-to-parent-like-a-dane//)
Want to learn how to parent like two-time winner Happiest Place on Earth, Denmark? I had the privilege of living as an American expat for two years in Aarhus, Denmark with my family, where they do things quite differently. Here’s what I learned:
Separation Anxiety Means a Whole Different Thing
When I moved to Denmark, I declined the full time Vuggestue (daycare) for my toddler son that came with the relocation package, because I didn’t work outside the home. This baffled my relocation agent, who insisted I would be happier left by myself to run errands. I insisted back that I could do that and look after my son at the same time. She didn’t back down. “In an emergency on an airplane, the flight crew instructs mothers to place the oxygen masks over their faces first. It’s only after the mother can breathe that she assists the children,” she said—or words to that effect. “Do you know why? Because if the mother doesn’t get a chance to breathe, the children cannot breathe, either.” The thought of having “help” to raise my child was so foreign to me, that with some effort I found I a day care center that offered a morning-only program. The half-day schedule allowed me to ease into a culture that not only doesn’t judge you for putting your kid in daycare, it actually pressures moms to do it. And the government funds it for all families. I came to love quiet mornings to myself and watching my child blossom with his Danish peers. But this was the toughest lesson I learned in Scandinavia: I must breathe so that my child can breathe, too.
Forget Baby Proofing
There’s no such thing as “baby-proofing” in Denmark. In America baby-proofing is an industry built on the fear that kids will be in danger. But in Denmark, kids are encouraged to be independent and adventurous. Every day they do things that would send most American moms running after their children yelling. Every year on Sankt Hans Aften (St. John’s Eve), the celebration of the summer solstice, families, including kids of all ages, gather together to sing traditional songs and burn a straw witch on a huge bonfire. The particular celebration my family and I attended was in a field, next to a forest. As the massive bonfire was lit, I realized there were no safety precautions: no fire trucks, extinguishers or buckets of water. There were also no ropes or cones blocking off the fire. Kids could (and did) run around the fire as close to the flames as they dared. You can also find fire pits on the playground of most Danish schools. On a regular basis the teachers would light a huge bonfire on the playground so the kids could roast bread on sticks. And inside my son’s classroom, there were lit candles in the window sills. When I pointed out that the children could reach the candles, the teachers were nonplussed: “Why would they touch fire? That would cause a burn.” The Danish people are fearless. And proud of it. They expose their kids to danger early.
Keep Lunch Lackluster
In America we believe in choice. In Denmark, too much choice is seen as confusing or unnecessary. Take lunch, for example. Not only did I pack the same lunch for my kids every day, but every kid had the same lunch. My kids could have swapped lunches with any kid at school and still had “Leverpostej og Rugbrød” (the Dane’s favorite liver spread on Rye bread), carrots and apples. Not perfectly shaped, bright orange, individually bagged baby carrots, but misshapen things recently pulled from the ground, unpeeled, with greens still attached. (Also delicious.) And the apples were similar—bruised, misshapen, brown, unpeeled and whole. There was no worry about the food being “kid-friendly.” The kids devoured them.
Get Hygge With It
In America we feel that leaving work at 5:00 pm is “sneaking out.” Not in Denmark. At 4:00pm on the dot, the offices clear out. It’s like the opening song of the Flintstones. Everybody leaves to pick up kids and head home for dinner, which is cooked with the family. The Danes have a word with no direct translation in the English language—Hygge. It means creating a warm atmosphere and enjoying the good things in life with good people. The warm glow of candlelight is hygge. Friends and family are hygge. There’s nothing more hygge than sitting round a table, discussing the big and small things in life. The Danish families create this coziness with mealtime almost every night. But it doesn’t just happen; they prioritize it. In the U.S., just hanging out together can feel like time wasted. In Denmark, it was the best time of the day.