Danes have the right approach to discipline

Opinion columnist Jessica Alexander and her Danish husband had very different thoughts about how to raise their children but the American transplant eventually adopted 'The Danish Way' and thinks all parents should too.

Danes have the right approach to discipline
Photo: Colourbox
We were on holiday recently and I witnessed a fairly familiar scene. I don’t need to talk about where we were. It could have been Anywhere, U.S.A or Wherever, Europe. It could have been on a beach, in the snow, in a restaurant or on the street. 
A family was eating dinner and a three-year-old girl was misbehaving. I don’t know how well behaved any three-year-old is supposed to be, but the father had finally had enough. He half stood up, raised the back of his hand and threatened to slap her in the face if she didn’t behave. He was a pretty big guy, as all people are compared to little children and she predictably recoiled in fear and did, in fact, “behave” after crying. He didn’t hit her then and there but clearly she had been hit before. I have seen this scene in so many different forms, with hitting and yanking, and with all ages of children. My only surprise is how foreign it becomes to me every time I see it.
I was spanked as a child as I think many of us were. I didn’t have a problem with it. I thought it was very normal to spank and why wouldn’t you spank when absolutely necessary to get a serious message across to a child? It wasn’t until I was pregnant with my first child that I started to have some serious doubts on the subject. I had taken it for granted that my husband and I would spank occasionally. How else do you discipline children? But even my fixation on the word “discipline” was already an issue for my Danish husband. He didn’t understand why we shouldn’t focus more on avoiding problems rather than “disciplining” them. He found my point of view bizarre. I found his impractical. 
The truth is, most of us rarely question the way we are raised. Our upbringing is just normal to us. Society has some very engrained ideas about what is acceptable and what is not and we seldom challenge whether they are right or wrong. The way we were brought up is just part of our cultural heritage and we wear it like the skin on our bodies. Spanking, although perhaps not openly talked about, is more or less acceptable in many places. People do it. It happens. Maybe they aren’t proud of it but it is a way of maintaining order. This is true for many countries. But after numerous hours of heated debate with my husband, I started to waver. He wore me down with his arguments and I begrudgingly started to soften. I mean, it’s not that I wanted to spank but… what else do you do when you are desperate? And so, my final, very pointed question to him was this: 
“Do you really think it’s possible to raise kids without hitting?” 
His very serious pointed response was to laugh in disbelief at my question. 
It was precisely his genuine incredulity at my position that made me truly start to question the cultural skin I was wearing. 
While writing ‘The Danish Way of Parenting: A Guide to Raising the Happiest Kids in the World’ alongside Danish psychotherapist Iben Sandahl, we did some serious research into the subject of spanking and discovered some eye-opening statistics. Spanking has been illegal in Denmark since 1997. In Sweden it was abolished even earlier – in 1979.  Spanking is now illegal in more than 32 countries, including much of Europe, several South American countries, Israel, Tunisia and Kenya.
There are mountains of evidence showing the long-term negative effects of physical punishment on children. Almost all the Danes we interviewed for the book said that they considered spanking “an extremely strange, almost unthinkable form for disciplining a child.”
So after a lot of research and careful consideration, I decided to try the ‘avoiding ultimatums’ approach and focus more on managing problems than disciplining them. I am now going on seven years without raising a hand to my children and I can honestly say I don’t think hitting is necessary to raise well-adjusted, well-behaved kids. Sure it works in the short term but is it providing that strong base for trust and self-esteem that we all wish to have? Is it teaching closeness and respect out of understanding or distance and hostility out of fear? And is this yet another reason why Denmark is constantly among the happiest countries in the world, not to mention the most peaceful?
It does make me wonder: if we could all take on the cultural skin of a Dane for a little while; would the idea of spanking our children feel like a slap in the face? 
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

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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