Four ways that Danes are socializers, not socialists

American author Jessica Alexander has seen US interest in Denmark spike in recent weeks, but she wonders if more of her countrymen would be inspired by Danes if they focused on their social traits rather than their 'socialist' label.

Four ways that Danes are socializers, not socialists
US presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is a big proponent of Denmark, but is he focusing on the wrong things? Photo: Scott Olson/Scanpix
It’s the country that has been on the tip of Bernie Sanders’s tongue this campaign trail. The US senator consistently points to little ol' Denmark, a small country famous for the Little Mermaid, as a role model for how countries treat their working classes. When he brought Denmark up in the first Democratic presidential debate, his main rival Hillary Clinton responded by saying “we are not Denmark” but was quick to add “I love Denmark.” 
So what is all the fuss about and what is America missing out on? I mean, so what if Denmark has been consistently voted as one of the happiest countries in the world for the past 40 years now. They pay high taxes and are socialists. 
Didn’t Sanders get the memo that American ears tend to shrivel up and implode at the very mention of the words “socialist” and “high taxes”? Everyone knows that any extra information beyond those two words won’t pass the ear canal and into the brain for further consideration. So why does he bother using Denmark as an example?
But here’s a thought. What if we replaced the word “socialists” with “socializers” – would people be more open to finding out what makes up Danish wellbeing beyond their high taxes? If we looked at Danes as human beings, not as socialists, is there anything we could learn behind the label? What if there was more to Denmark than the politicians would have you believe?
Here are four little known facts about the Danish way and how Danes raise their children to be social – not socialist.
1. Danes are very empathic. They teach empathy to children. It starts in pre-school and is seen as just as important as teaching maths or Danish. All the recent science is pointing towards the fact that empathy is a key factor in happiness. It connects us to others and it is a skill that can be both learned and taught. In America, studies show that empathy levels have dropped 50 percent since the 1980s and ’90s while narcissism has increased twofold. 
2. Danes love to play.Leg godt”, which means “play well”, are the words behind the famous Danish brand Lego. Danes are big believers in the importance of unstructured play, which has been proven to reduce anxiety while improving self-control, negotiation skills, and socialization. Free play helps kids feel more in control of their lives. In America we continue to diminish recess and free play in favour of more structured class time and more standardized testing. 
3. Danes don’t spank. Spanking has been illegal in Denmark for nearly 20 years. For most Danes, spanking is an unthinkable way of educating children. They have a very democratic approach to parenting. Their belief is that if you teach respect and act respectfully yourself then you too will be respected. Perhaps it’s no surprise that Denmark has also repeatedly been named one of the most peaceful countries in the world. 
4. Danes value togetherness. The concept of hygge, which basically means to cozy around together, is a deep part of the Danish culture. Essentially it is drama-free time with family and friends. It is highly respected and everyone makes an effort to make it happen. That results in “we time” not “me time”. Danes work together to enjoy the moment and the company rather than fighting, competing or complaining. They feel there are plenty of times to argue but during ‘hygge’ time everyone should feel safe and comfortable in a cozy environment. Feeling connected to others brings meaning and purpose to all of our lives, so this is certainly an interesting Danish concept other cultures should consider.
So if we got rid of the socialist label and replaced it with sociability, would there be any space for the Danish way in the heart of America? It’s a question worth asking if anyone would dare to listen. 
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

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


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