What Americans can learn from humble Danes

The Local's new opinion columnist Jessica Alexander writes that her fellow Americans would benefit from taking a lesson in humility from the Danes.

What Americans can learn from humble Danes
The author contends that Danes are less likely to drop 'A-bombs' on each other. Photo: Colourbox
When I first met my Danish husband-to-be, I can honestly say he was a man of mystery. We had many interesting conversations but he divulged little about himself. He wasn’t very forthcoming with any measurable indicators of his awesomeness and I found this a little disconcerting. I started to wonder if “Danish” wasn’t just a pseudonym for “serial killer”. What was he hiding? And if he wasn’t hiding anything, why would he be hiding something that might amplify his awesomeness? 
Most guys I’d dated rattled off their CV on the first date. Anything worth knowing was worth sharing quickly. Here is my job title, here is a general idea of how much money I make (rounded up) and this is what I own or plan to own (rounded up).  These A-bombs (awesomeness bombs) would typically be dropped during innocuous conversations whenever there was an opportunity. 
“So I went to this park and it’s funny it really reminded me of my college campus, Stanford.” (Boom! A-bomb.) “I got my MBA before working in a school for orphans because I really wanted to brush up on my Spanish and get away from the hectic life of working in a law firm.” Boom, boom, boom!
I admit it. I was also quite a skilled A-bomber. During a lunch date, I was usually able to drop that I’d studied to be a pilot, graduated with honours and spoke French and Italian before dessert arrived. Dates like these left you drained of your accolades but at least you knew who you had in front of you. Or did you?
After more than a month of dating my Dane, I found myself wandering through his apartment. Ok, snooping through his apartment.  I shockingly discovered a line of football trophies. He was also a skilled chess player and had beaten a grand master. He had even studied at a prestigious university. I felt betrayed. I took a trophy and stormed out to the kitchen. 
“Why!? Why didn’t you tell me!?,” I yelled.
“What?” he said, looking confused. 
“I saw how good you are at football and chess and I saw where you went to school! Why didn’t you tell me about all of these accomplishments?!”
He laughed and shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know. Because you didn’t ask?” 
Wow! This was news! Since when was asking a question a prerequisite for dropping an A-bomb? This was my first brush with Danish humility and it had completely blown me away. Within a year we were married.
What I have come to learn 14 years later, is that being humble is just as much a part of being Danish as apple pie is to being American. It is passed onto their children who then become naturally humble as adults. I believe it is one of the reasons the Danes are so consistently voted as among the happiest people in the world. They don’t need other people to justify how awesome they are because that isn’t a prerequisite to being interesting or valid. Therefore, they feel more secure with who they are and who they aren’t.
“We want our children to be respectful of others,” Iben Sandahl, a respected Danish psychotherapist and my co-author on ‘The Danish Way of Parenting’ said. 
“Talking unnecessarily about achievements or how good you are seems strange to us. Since we think everyone has a right to be respected, from a CEO to a janitor, we try to teach our children to focus on the good in themselves and others rather than on status or labels,” she added.
As an American, this is a very interesting concept. Being driven to succeed for yourself builds the foundation for real self-esteem, not empty confidence fuelled by praise. Moreover, judging and being judged by what kind of a person you are rather than how accomplished you are removes the subtle competition that permeates much of our lives. It connects us rather than divides us. It encourages empathy instead of narcissism, which in turn increases wellbeing.
Thinking about it I can’t help but wonder: if we replaced apple pie with a little more humble pie would we be happier too? That’s just food for thought.
Jessica AlexanderJessica Alexander is an American author who co-wrote 'The Danish Way of Parenting: A Guide to Raising the Happiest Kids in the World'. She has been married to a Dane for over 13 years and has always been fascinated cultural differences. She speaks four languages and currently lives in Rome with her husband and two children, Sophia and Sebastian.

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Is the Danish concept of free play in danger?

Parenting expert Jessica Alexander worries that even in Denmark, where play is seen as a necessary part of a child’s life, free play could be pushed out by a focus on competitiveness.

Is the Danish concept of free play in danger?
Can 'play' be packaged and sold? Photo: famveldman /Iris/Scanpix
I recently took a tour around the International School of Billund, Denmark which is backed by the Lego Foundation and situated in the Lego capital of the world, so to speak. 
For those who don’t know, Lego is a Danish brand and it is a combination of the words 'leg godt' or ‘play well’. It’s one of the building blocks of Denmark’s firm belief that children need a lot of unstructured playtime to be healthy.
Rows and rows of Lego-based learning could be seen throughout the school along with tinkering walls, creative corners and design centres where kids were making clothes in Project Runway style rooms as part of their after-school programming. The school is built on a philosophy of learning through play, and teachers strive to incorporate play and creativity into the curriculum at every stage, from kindergarten through students' early teens. This is special even for Denmark, where play is seen as a necessary part of a child’s life.
While I was there, I ran into a group of Harvard researchers who were working together with teachers to investigate what it means to put play at the heart of a school’s curriculum and how one measures this.  The idea is to create an educational framework and tools that can be used by other educators interested in making learning more playful. 
While I think this research is truly fascinating, I also feel a little bit nervous about it.
When my book ‘The Danish Way of Parenting’ was first released, I did several interviews with my co-author about play and what the future might look like in countries where free play had declined in favour of scheduled, adult-led activities. 
Some studies, for example, show that the amount of a child’s free play in America has dropped 50 percent since the 1950s just to put it in perspective.
One thing I kept repeating in these interviews was my fear that free play might one day become an oxymoron or commercialized. I was afraid that, as soon as it was proven to be serious learning, someone would surely want to measure it, package it and ultimately sell it. 
Let me say that the International School of Billund is not interested in selling its findings or quantifying the “learning results” for any toy or technique. School officials know that they are investigating something that is almost inherently unmeasurable, but they believe that it’s worth it if it empowers children to see learning as a pleasurable lifelong pursuit. I think what they are doing is very interesting and the school is brilliant.
My concern, however, is that at some point, somebody will try to quantify the concept of “play” and sell it. And the idea of charging for play feels a bit like selling an overpriced apple and labelling it as a diet product. It defeats what should just be a natural healthy part of life, not a specialized technique or super food. 
I can already foresee parents cutting back on the violin, Chinese and organic cupcake making lessons to enrol their kids in free play courses where children could get score cards on how much their social skills, negotiation and empathy capabilities increase. Where they can get graded for their collaboration, self-control and resiliency. All of these things, unfortunately, completely defeat the purpose of why play is so good in the first place. 
Free play is a child’s way of making sense of their worlds. It’s their way of coping with anxiety and expressing themselves and feeling in control of their own destiny. This is where some of their sense of self-esteem gets developed and this can’t be controlled, coaxed or measured by an adult. 
I often wonder if that competitive edge everyone wants to buy for their kids is cutting away at the very self-esteem we want to build up. What if kids really just need more freedom to feel in control of their own lives?
All of this pressure is coming from an ever increasingly competitive society. It’s not coming from kids. They are just mirroring what we want. If we could relax ourselves, sand down our competitive edges, let kids be kids and trust them more to trust in themselves, we might see a drop in anxiety and a true increase in happiness down the line. And wouldn’t those be measurable results we could be proud of?
Jessica AlexanderJessica Alexander is an American author who co-wrote 'The Danish Way of Parenting: A Guide to Raising the Happiest Kids in the World'. She has been married to a Dane for over 13 years and has always been fascinated by cultural differences. She speaks four languages and currently lives in Rome with her husband and two children. Her book can be purchased via Amazon and Saxo