According to Unicef’s Child Well-Being in Rich Countries survey, Dutch kids ranked as the happiest in the world, especially when it comes to material well-being, educational well-being, and behavior and risks. After living in the Netherlands for twelve years, nine of those with kids of my own, I’m not surprised.
Dutch kids have an extraordinary amount of freedom compared to American kids. My son walked to elementary school ~ all by himself. He rode his bike to the playground and his friends’ houses. If I ran out of milk or bread, I handed him a ten and he hoofed it to the grocery store up the road. And no, I never worried. Villages in the Netherlands are compact, and neighbors look out for each other. My son bounced from friend’s house to friend’s house, and he knew to be home before the street lights flickered on.
Kids have a lot less pressure to perform in the Netherlands, as well. Elementary teachers don’t browbeat their students with historical facts or cram multiplication tables down their throats or make them memorize the constitution, and yet kids still learn at a level comparable to American schools. What’s the secret? When a child enjoys learning, he or she will want to learn more.
Here in the States, my kids can’t walk to school. They can’t bike to most of their friends’ houses or run errands for me. Until they turn sixteen and can drive themselves, they are pretty much at my mercy to take them wherever they want to go.
And school is never done at three o’clock. There’s homework and studying and projects, all leading up to the mother of all pressure cookers: the SATs. On top of her studies, my 9th grade daughter squeezes in volleyball, drama, singing, Dutch lessons, and social commitments six days out of seven. Her Dutch cousins of the same age tease her about being a typical overachieving American teen, and who knows? Maybe they’re right.
Obviously, my family’s reality doesn’t fully fit in either country, and we often find ourselves straddling the two cultures, picking and choosing the aspects from each that most appeal to us. And maybe that’s part of why, despite my kids’ busy, pressure-filled lives, they still seem genuinely happy.
Because ultimately, happiness is a choice.