Is ‘the Danish way’ the right way to parent?

Opinion columnist Jessica Alexander used to be sceptical of the Danish emphasis on playing and socializing but has come to realize that all cultures tend to view their own parenting approaches as best.

Is 'the Danish way' the right way to parent?
Danes tend to emphasize empathy and social skills for children. Photo: Colourbox
When I first met my Danish friend Iben Sandahl many years ago, she and her husband had two kids and I had none. I had only been married for a short time and I was not what you would call “a kid person” at that time. But I always had a lot of respect and admiration for her family. Their daughters were so lovely and well behaved that I wondered what they were putting in their drinks to keep them so sweet and calm all the time. I never heard yelling or screaming and they were really cute and pleasant little girls. That kids could be like that was a bit of a revelation for me and I remember thinking that if I could get a guarantee that I would have children like hers, I would have one tomorrow!
So when Iben and I went out one day, just the two of us, I asked the questions I would ask an American mom:
“So what are your daughters enrolled in? What extracurricular activities do they do? What classes are they the best at? Do they get good grades? (Never mind the fact that one of them was only in kindergarten!)
I was surprised by her response. 
“Well, apart from being the best, or getting good grades, it’s really important for me that they are good at socializing,” she told me.
“Socializing?!” I responded. 
I thought she was joking. She wasn’t. For her, it was very important that her children were kind, got along with their peers, and were well-liked by others. Weren’t those just normal, taken-for-granted traits for kids, and how were they supposed to get ahead in life without more early education? It was one of the strangest things I had ever heard a mom say.
Here many years later, as I am now a mother to two half-Danish kids, and I realize these were just cultural differences. She was wearing her Danish glasses and I was wearing my American ones. We saw the world perfectly differently in our own way. 
Our cultural beliefs are so engrained in us that we are unaware of how much they shape our visions of right and wrong. We all think that the way we grew up and our ideas about parenting are the “right way”.  We rarely, if ever, question this. 
This “right way” of parenting is what Sarah Harkness, a human development professor at the University of Connecticut, calls “parental ethnotheories”. They shape our lenses on the world and it is truly fascinating to see how different we can be. 
In Belgium kids are allowed to drink beer. In Norway, babies are left outside to sleep in below freezing weather. Vietnamese children are potty trained by nine months with a Pavlov-style whistle blowing technique.  Spanish kids can stay up until 11pm or later. The Kisii people in Kenya avoid eye contact because they think it gives children too much power. Americans are convinced early cognitive development is key while Dutch parents think regularly scheduled rest and food are crucial for kids. Each of these cultures see these things as “the right way”. It begs the question: if we could all see ourselves objectively, without our culturally-adjusted lenses on, what would we see? 

Harkness says that instead of judging others as being different or wrong, “we should be learning from each other and recognizing that there are very different and successful pathways to raising children.” Not just our own. 
So all of these years later, I am now wearing half American, half Danish lenses. I can see the importance of teaching empathy and social skills. I try to stay away from using words like gifted, smart and talented and focus more on the effort involved instead. I believe in the play-based Danish parenting style. And yet, I can only do it wholeheartedly by reminding myself that it is proven to be good for children’s development and learning in the long run. 
Probably the most interesting thing any of us can do is to remember that parenting is a verb that connects us all; across languages, borders and cultures. If we could all get behind one global lens, focusing on “the right way” might be a lot easier to do.

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