A few weeks ago, a video came out from a programme in Australia about a day in the life of a forest kindergarten in Skive in northern Denmark (see it below). It was so shocking for so many around the world that the story went viral.
In the video, children can be seen playing outside in freezing and raining weather, climbing extremely tall trees with no safety net and wading through mud puddles near open water. They are seen rolling down steep, wet, tree dotted hills and whittling sticks with real knives.
For a foreign onlooker, these scenes can conjure up the urge to dial child services. To a Dane, however, this is a rather normal setting for the stage of life growing up in Denmark.
The video made so much global noise, in fact, that it ended up on Danish national broadcaster DR’s Aftenshowet, where the commentators talked about our book ‘The Danish Way of Parenting’ and expressed their surprise that Denmark’s style of parenting could be seen as different to the rest of the world. But indeed, in many ways, it is. And one of the main ways it is different is in the way Danish parents trust their kids.
Teaching children how to do things for themselves and explaining what can be dangerous and why they need to be careful is laying the groundwork for trust. The key, however, is then to stand back and let them respect the boundaries for themselves. This is extremely powerful because children are amazing at following rules when they really understand their purpose and internalize them.
There are over 500 forest kindergartens in Denmark and they are not seen as radicalized baby boot camps. The thought of hovering over children to protect them, as we do in other cultures, or correcting every move they make would seem very strange indeed for a Dane.
Children are natural explorers so the overcorrecting, protecting, taking over a task or barricading any possible danger areas instead of explaining what they are and how to be careful are all contrary to instilling trust and building confidence in kids.
Our inability as parents to just stand back and let our kids hurt themselves is also a fundamental learning curve. Life is about getting skinned knees. It’s about falling down and getting back up. That is resilience. And resilience has been proven to be one of the greatest factors in cultivating happiness.
Seeing that Denmark has once again topped the world happiness charts for 2016, I can’t help but wonder if this instillation of resilience and trust in the young has something to do with those results.
As someone who grew up being told “no, don’t do that” often and currently living in a culture where parents tend to hover over their kids and worry a lot, it’s definitely not always easy to stand back and trust my kids knowing that they can hurt themselves.
But I have so much faith in the Danish way of parenting that I take a breath, close my eyes, and stand back. I really believe that trusting them to trust in themselves will protect them much better than I can in the long run.
So far, (knock on wood) no one has been hurt and no one has called child services on me. I haven’t started my knife whittling class for three to five-year-olds yet though.
In one scene in the Danish forest kindergarten video the interviewer asks in a clearly concerned voice if the teacher is worried about the boys hurting themselves with the huge sticks they are wielding around each other.
The teacher replies very nonchalantly.
“Sometimes they hit, yes, and they get a little accident but that’s the way to learn. Only once I had to drive to the hospital with a boy with a big injury in 17 years. So I am not worried”
The interviewer pauses and asks nervously.
“And what was the injury?”
“It was a parent who drove over a foot.”
In 17 years of an outrageously dangerous looking kindergarten where children are trusted to follow rules themselves, the biggest injury came from an adult driving over a child’s foot.
They say the truth hurts sometimes and here it really does. If adults could just stand back a little more, we would marvel at how capable kids are with a little trust.
Jessica 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.