In the Netherlands, kids get chocolate sprinkles on their breakfast and early sex education
Rina Mae Acosta is Asian-American, a mother to two young kids, and originally from the San Francisco Bay Area. She grew up not far from Amy Chua, the author of “The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” which explored strict kid-rearing inspired by Chinese parenting traditions — and prompted countless debates over the key to children’s happiness.
By contrast, Acosta chose to raise her children in a small village in the Netherlands with her Dutch husband, and her approach is far more laid-back. She lets her kids eat chocolate sprinkles every morning for breakfast. Her children, aged four years and 20 months, have open play dates and are free to roam around in the backyard, unstructured and unattended.
“I guess I’m a Tiger Mommy failure,” she says.
But parents in the Netherlands like Acosta seem to be doing something right, because in two consecutive Unicef studies (conducted in 2007 and 2013) on children’s well-being in rich countries, Dutch children came out on top. Out of the 29 countries studied, the U.S. ranked 26th. “The Netherlands heads the league table of children’s subjective well-being with 95% of its children reporting a high level of life satisfaction,” the 2013 study cited.
Now, Acosta and co-author Michele Hutchison — a British expat also raising her two kids in the Netherlands — are sharing the secrets of Dutch parenting more widely, with “The Happiest Kids in the World: How Dutch Parents Help Their Kids by Doing Less” (The Experiment).
“The Dutch parenting approach is not really something new,” Acosta says. “I think it’s an intuitive parenting approach that most of us already know but have forgotten.”
MarketWatch spoke with Acosta to see what American parents can learn:
MarketWatch: Your book says it’s all about the “hagelslag” (chocolate sprinkles). Why is eating “hagelslag” with bread for breakfast the key to Dutch kids’ happiness?
Acosta: Who wouldn’t be happy with having chocolate first thing in the morning? But the bigger idea is: Everything in moderation. So if children are allowed their own indulgences, it becomes less of a taboo and they learn to have more self-control. For example, my four-year-old, because he knows he can get chocolate first thing in the morning for breakfast, is able to moderate himself. He’s happy with the two slices of bread. Even if I put the whole box of hagelslag on the table, he doesn’t pour more in once he’s had his share.
MarketWatch: So in creating a more free environment, you actually help a child set his/her own rules?
Acosta: A really happy child is a child who is given boundaries and, within those boundaries, is given a lot of freedom. They are not children who are entitled — in fact, the children who are spoiled and entitled are often the unhappiness, I find. [Those] children feel like the world owes them everything. They want the most expensive toys or the newest, fanciest toys and biggest birthday parties. Middle-class Dutch children would know even if they wanted something, they have to actually work for it.
A great example is King’s Day, one of the most important holidays in the Netherlands celebrating royalty’s birthday. Aside from everyone wearing orange and everyone partying, the whole country becomes one giant flea market. This is when Dutch children have their own section where they can sell and buy toys. You can find seven- or eight-year-olds trying to sell their toys or cupcakes. We’re talking about prices that are, like, 25 cents. One euro is actually a lot of money for a toy. It teaches them the value of money and to take joy in the simple things.
MarketWatch: If they eat chocolate sprinkles every morning, how come Dutch kids aren’t fat? They have some of the world’s lowest obesity rates.
Acosta: They bike to school. They have 45 minutes of recess. They’re also expected to play outside. The first years of school, they’re encouraged to create their own play dates. The parents talk and it’s decided whose house the children are going to be at, and what time the children are picked up or dropped off at their house. During that time, the children are expected to entertain themselves. They’re expected to go outside and play. But, keep in mind, we also keep the area safe.
MarketWatch: As an Asian-American expat, what has been the biggest adjustment for you?
Acosta: I grew up with this idea that to be the best mother, I always have to be there for him and to be cautious and careful and anxious. Anxiety is a sign of being a good mother in American culture. In a way, it’s our battle stripes, and we do take pride in being worried about our children.
It’s not that the Dutch are not worried. Like all parents, they have concerns. What makes them different is they try to take a pragmatic assessment of real risk versus perceived risk. Rather than just worry and try to control everything, they try to equip their children starting from a young age with how to assess risk. A great example would be how to navigate the road safely. Starting at the age of two, toddlers are already taught the traffic rules. Here’s a bike lane, stay on the right-hand side. Also, swimming: It’s really important because we’re surrounded by a lot of water, so at around four- or five-years-old, the children all have their swim diplomas so they won’t drown.
MarketWatch: Specifically with babies, what is a unique aspect of Dutch parenting?
Acosta: My research of Professor Sara Harkness and Charles Super’s studies led me to realize that a lot of American babies are actually being overstimulated. There’s too much emphasis on cognitive development at such an early age. The takeaway is for parents to just relax and realize that for a newborn baby, the world is interesting and stimulating enough.
MarketWatch: What about with teenagers?
Acosta: I see a difference in terms of openness and communication between Dutch parents and teenagers. Two great examples are drugs and sex. Dutch parents talk about everything with their children. Parents would rather the children come to them than get their information from somewhere else.
Dutch teenagers are often allowed to have romantic sleepovers with their significant others because Dutch parents would rather their teenagers are in a safe environment. We should also stress that the Dutch teenagers have among the world’s lowest STD rates. They don’t engage in sexual activity earlier than their American peers and when they do have their “first time,” it’s often with more positive experiences. Everything is so open for discussion — not everything is allowed, it’s not a free for all — and it seems that Dutch children are less likely to rebel.
MarketWatch: Americans can be conservative when it comes to sex education. What’s the Dutch approach?
Acosta: The Dutch are the paragons of sex education in Europe. They beat the French and the Italians and the Spanish — the Latin lovers. The Dutch pragmatically believe in teaching sex education. Starting at the age of four, children are taught in age-appropriate ways about sexuality. They’re taught about feelings, different kinds of people and, also, what is appropriate and inappropriate touching and how to be vocal when they’re touched in a way they don’t feel comfortable with: A simple thing such as a child not wanting to be touched on their arm. There’s a whole week dedicated from age four to 12 about sex education. As the children get older, the topics become more detailed and explicit. But what I love about starting at the age of four is it helps children understand the importance of boundaries.
MarketWatch: Your book highlights the Dutch saying, “Doe maar gewoon,” or “just act normal” or “calm down.” How does it extend to parenting? For instance, you write that some expats interpret this as pressure to resign yourself to being average.
Acosta: It’s not necessarily that the Dutch lack ambition, which is a common misconception. “Doe maar gewoon” can be translated simply as not putting with up pretenses, of not thinking you are better than everyone else but just being down-to-earth. “Doe maar gewoon” is the Crown Princess Amelia biking to school, just like all the other Dutch kids.
If a child happens to be brilliant and intrinsically motivated, they are given the support to excel, both at home and in school. It is this same “Doe maar gewoon” mentality where the Dutch win Nobel prizes, namely in chemistry and physics, where they lead the way in architecture, design and medicine, and where they are well-respected and quite opinionated in the European Union.
Of course the Dutch have ambitions for their children like all parents around the world. It’s simply that the Dutch see happiness as a means to success, that “happiness,” self-awareness, intrinsic motivation, independence, positive ties with their family and friends, can cultivate success. Whereas, often times in our modern day culture, success is seen as the way toward happiness