The Danish Way of Parenting (Episode 286)
Have you heard of the Danish way of parenting? While I knew Denmark has ranked first or second for the happiest country in the world for the past 50 years, I hadn't really researched their way of parenting. So when I read a random article last year that referenced a book on this, I immediately added it to my wish list to get.
Last year, as I looked at my goals and intentions, I was on a mission to read more. And read I did! I'm pretty proud of the fact that I read 30 books in 2022, and, while my goal wasn't about the number, it's amazing what all I was able to accomplish simply by preserving my first morning hour for reading.
My mother saw this book, The Danish Way of Parenting, on my wish list and got it for me as a spontaneous gift one month. And it was a highlight out of all my books I want to share with you.
The Danish Way
This book was written by an American mom, Jessica Joelle Alexander, who claimed to not have a maternal bone in her body, and Iben Dissing Sandahl, a Danish psychotherapist. As Jessica saw the ease in witch her Danish husband's family and friends raised their kids, she wanted to figure out what the magic formula was.
Ultimately the Danish way looks at children needing space and trust to allow them to learn self mastery - to understand how to think critically and solve their own problems vs. looking to parents for it all. Why is this important? For this:
"This creates genuine self-esteem and self-reliance because it comes from the child's own internal cheerleader, not from someone else."
In caring for our children, we want to make sure we don't take away our children's ability to care for themselves. Learning how to regulate stress, anxiety, fear, anger...while they are hard to see our children experience, they are critical to their own personal development.
A Powerful Acronym
The authors break down the basic fundamental principles Danish families tend to live by, and they harnessed it into an easy to remember acronym: PARENT!
We'll dig a bit into each of these and how we see the importance of them in our own home.
No, we don't have it all figured out for the perfect model. Yet when people point out a positive experience with our family, it's often times these key elements laid out in this acronym that really speak to the positive interactions we've created.
Take into account each of these elements, and look at how you might add a bit more into your own home.
P is for PLAY
This is definitely a biggie that can oftentimes get understated and overlooked. Nathan is a rockstar at playing with our kids. He can get just as lost in imagination and running around as they can. And he burns off a lot of energy rough housing and chasing the girls. That being said, play doesn't always have to look like a game of tag.
I challenge you to try some "no thank you" bites of play your child enjoys - like playing tag, building legos or playing house. Maybe it's not completely your cup of tea, but it takes you into their world, their perspective, and lets them know you're interested in them and what they like to do.
Then expand that play beyond just the things they enjoy to what you can introduce to them as well. Play in the form of imaginative high energy play isn't typically my first go-to. However, we can play around in the kitchen while we bake, we can play while doing projects together, and we can get super crafty with our art.
So sometimes play is led by our kids. Sometimes it's led by us. And sometimes, the play is just brushing up against the limits of our comfort zones, like climbing trees, knowing a child may fall, yet knowing they are also learning valuable skills about what their body is capable of.
In play, our kids learn about navigating fear, conflict and cooperation. They are testing themselves and their limits - both with themselves and others.
A is for Authenticity
Ah, being authentic with our kids can be tough sometimes. We want to protect their innocence and shower them with love and support. Yet raising our children in toxic positivity isn't the answer. We can't deny the reality of life, and it's in the intensity of all our emotions that we really experience the fullness of them.
Our children don't really know the feeling of a full belly until they've experienced what hunger feels like. They know what a good friend is when they feel the pain of a fair-weather one.
It was eye opening to me to read about the "why" with all of those fairy tale endings that seemed so morbid. So many fairy tales end in tragedy, and Hans Christian Andersen, the Danish author famous for fairy tales like The Ugly Duckling and The Little Mermaid, ended his stories very differently than Disney would like you to believe.
In our translations of many of the fairy tales of old, we screen and filter out the sadness and suffering. In the Danish philosophy of authenticity, however, they believe that stories and entertainment should allow us to come to our own conclusions and judgements, and that tragedies and upsetting events are things we should talk about, too.
It was interesting to me that there have been studies shown that watching tragic or sad movies actually can make people happier by bringing attention to some of the more positive aspects of their own lives.
"For Danes, authenticity begins with an understanding of our own emotions. If we teach our children to recognize and accept their authentic feelings, good or bad, and act in a way that's consistent with their values, the challenges and rough patches in life won't topple them. They will know that they have acted in accordance with what feels right. They will know how to recognize their own limits and respect them.
This inner compass, an authentic self-esteem based on values, becomes the most powerful guiding force in one's life, largely resistant to external pressures."
The Danish Way of Parenting, page 33
Being real with the ups and downs of life. Getting honest with our emotions. And a growth mindset - these are the key elements of authenticity for Danes.
Having a growth mindset always allows us to expand and improve, and gives us grace for when we don't quite get it...just yet. So when you praise authentically, pay attention to whether you're praising the person as a whole or if it's better to be focused on the task.
Praising the task allows you to praise what your child did and point out the qualities and effort it took to create it. When we lavish our praise for "good" or "smart" kids, we send the message that this is all we want to see. Yet we are human. We're all going to do dumb or "bad" things from time to time, and that doesn't make us a dumb or bad person.
Focus on tasks, qualities, and the reality of life. Look for the silver linings, yes (we'll get to that next), yet don't deny the harder sides of life. Those not so great feelings and experiences are relative, and oftentimes makes the good stuff feel even better.
R is for Reframing
So let's take that authenticity to the next step. And that's reframing what is out there.
It's not a denial of what is, and it's not sitting in the tragedy of the world.
It's being a "realistic optimist". That means looking for those silver linings in crappy situations, and utilizing a growth mindset to really address where you can learn and what might be possible due to circumstances beyond your control, for example.
Pay attention to the words you use, especially the labels. Your child is more than a "picky eater" or "ADHD". These can quickly become identities they own that become bigger than all they could be without them.
To be a realistic optimist,
You acknowledge reality, but you can still eliminate the unnecessary negative words and focus on the good feelings rather than the bad through humor or focus on another time of feeling good. If you choose to look at the positive aspects of any child's behavior, you are giving them the tools to deal with their uniqueness. It's all in the way you frame it.
The Danish Way of Parenting, page 68
E is for Empathy
The edition of the book we read was written in 2016. At that point, they shared that a recent study had shown that empathy had dropped almost 50% in young people in the US since the 80s and 90s. And narcissism had increased twofold. We've definitely been hearing more and more about the younger generations and entitlement, and we simply need to look at politics to address all elements of mental health, especially narcissism.
Empathy is a critical part of who we are. It's what connects us to one another, and no, I don't believe its unique to just us humans. This is my most favorite explanation of what true empathy is:
In Danish schools, they've implemented things like the Step by Step program where children talk about empathy, problem-solving, self-control, and how to read facial expressions. They have the CAT-kit program focused on emotional awareness and empathy with looking at how to articulate experiences, thoughts, feelings and senses. The Free of Bullying program promotes spaces for children ages 3-8 to talk about bullying and teasing and what they can do to prevent it.
As teachers get to know their students, they subtly mix students of different abilities and encourage them to work with and help each other to learn. The goal completely resonates with me - it's recognizing we all have strengths that may be different from each other. It's epitomizing the Mama Says Namaste tagline:
The uniqueness in each of us
strengthens all of us
A key way to see the good in others is to start talking about it and focusing on it. The more you can identify it in others (and in yourself), the more likely you are to notice more of it. Where our focus goes, our energy flows - when we spend our time focused on all the qualities of others we don't like, we're perpetuating that, and reinforcing our negativity bias with every negative we see in them.
N is for No Ultimatums
Did you know that there are still 19 states that allow corporal punishment in schools? And yes, that's like the old school spankings my brother got on repeat when he was in elementary school. Spanking is still prevalent. Threatening is as common as breathing for many families.
There was a fairly recent study that was done and shared by the Canadian Medical Association Journal that covered two decades worth of research on the long term effects of physical punishment on children. It concluded that there was absolutely zero studies that affirmed spanking.
Not only did it prove spanking didn't work, it showed how it can wreak havoc on their long-term development.
Now, as a child who was spanked, I will tell you, it didn't ruin me. It isn't a trauma I've held onto, and I'm grateful to see my parents in a light that understands they did the best they could with what they knew at the time. Their spanking was never out of anger or spite, and the amount of deposits in my emotional bank from them more than made up for the rare spanking I received.
That being said, there are plenty who had horrific experiences with spanking. And I've scratched my head on the logic of hitting a kid for hitting another - how does that even make sense? Or how to teach body consent...with the exception of parent force?
So, in the spirit of reframing, the Danes don't look at things like the "terrible twos" - they refer to them as the "boundary age" where children are pressing up against their own limits and learning about their own independence. They push the boundaries as they learn what's okay and what isn't. This fits so brilliantly with my bathtub of boundaries and an ocean of love concept.
So as a way to learn boundaries and promote democracy, Danish students are encouraged to play a part in the rule-setting and goal setting for their classrooms, and to look for tools to help them all work together. A child with ADHD may wiggle on an inflatable cushion while reading, for example, or have a box of stress balls handy for anxious kids.
The ultimate goal with "no ultimatums" is to give grace for yourself and your child. It's recognizing they will press up against boundaries as part of their healthy growth, and it's a-ok. Not only that, your perspective on who they are and not getting lost in comparison makes a huge difference in your patience and approach to a child.
Ask yourself if your child is truly needing an ultimatum, or if this is an opportunity for growth, maybe learning the hard way, or when you need to really step back and ask yourself, "what's so bad about it?"
While each section has tips at the end for how to apply it, I want to share this section especially, as we can often get trapped with threats and punishment when we're at our wit's end with kids:
- Remember to distinguish the behavior from the child.
- Avoid power struggles.
- Don't blame the child.
- Try to see the child as inherently good.
- Teach your children.
- Remember - the cycle comes back to you.
- Get your partner involved.
- Check your ultimatums (pay attention to what you might be saying because it was said to you as a child - what is really important here, and can you reframe them to a more positive light?)
- Always think of your child's age.
- Be accepting of all kinds of feelings.
- Remember, protest is a response to something.
- Put the bad behavior in context.
- Know what makes you snap.
- Show that you listen.
T is for Togetherness or Hygge
The word "hygge" takes some getting used to. It's clearly not in my English language. It's pronounced "hooga", and here is a little about it -
"The word hygge dates back to the nineteenth century and is derived from the Germanic word huggja, which means 'to think or feel satisfied'. It is a virtue, a point of pride, and a mood or state of mind. Hygge is something Danes identify with both in action and in being - it is apart of their cultural foundation.
Because Danes see hygge as a way of life, they all try to make a cozy time together with their family and friends happen.
Feeling connected to others gives meaning and purpose in our lives.
The Danish Way of Parenting, pages 124-125
I considered this as our word of the year for 2023. I love the concept so much. Just being together. Creating beautiful cozy moments, away from screens, away from tensions, and really engaging all the senses to create a soothing environment.
This isn't to deny the parts of life that aren't so rosy. It's to intentionally create space for sanctuary, peace and calm in your life...with the people you're choosing to go through this life with.
Teamwork is huge in Denmark, and you look for ways to add to the team vs. standing on your own, which, unfortunately, the "American" way has tended to be every person for themselves. Of course I'm generally speaking. I'm sure there are narcissistic and individualistic people in Denmark just as in the US, the same as I'm grateful there are people in the US who truly are living so many of these philosophies, even if we may frame them differently.
I'm blown away by how the midwives handle deliveries in Denmark. Not only do they focus on follow-up after a baby is born (when many mothers are left feeling the most alone and overwhelmed), they also gather a contact list of all the other mothers with new babies in the same area so they can form support groups to navigate the stages of their children together, and not be alone in those first exhausting years. Again, the uniqueness in each of us strengthens all of us. The more we band together and offer support, the stronger we all are.
"Hygge is a feeling as well as a way of being. It's eliminating the confusion and hysteria of all else. It is choosing to enjoy the most important, meaningful moments of our lives - those with our children and family and friends, and respecting them as important.
It's keeping them simple, making the atmosphere positive, and leaving our troubles behind. It is wanting to be there in those moments, choosing to be there, and this takes effort because like all team projects, it is working together toward a shared goal. This is the opposite of being an individual and standing out from the crowd. Everyone has to want it and respect it. Everyone plays a part. If we are all willing to contribute to creating a cozy time together, it dramatically improves family get-togethers, which in turn dramatically affects our wellbeing and happiness."
The Danish Way of Parenting, page 135
What do you think about this acronym?
- P - play
- A - authenticity
- R - reframing
- E - empathy
- N - no ultimatums
- T - togetherness/hygge
Where do you feel your family is rocking it, and where do you experience a bit of tension?
What can you do for your family this week to address one of these areas and determine a different approach?
If the way things have been going just haven't been working well, it's time to re-evaluate.
We clearly loved this book and appreciated the insights that reinforced a lot of what we've already believed, and summarized so well into a beautiful book for parents. I'd highly encourage you to grab your own copy (many of my coaching clients will be getting it, for sure!)
Pay attention to what family, home, and togetherness really looks like and feels like for you, and for your family. Have some conversations around it. Engage the senses and see how to incorporate more intentional hygge time in your home - we've found it to be a truly beautiful experience that's worth making space for. And remember, it's not about being in perfect alignment with every person in your path - we are all on our own journeys. And the more we can recognize the beautiful perspectives, experiences and skills we all have, the more we can celebrate how the uniqueness in each of us strengthens all of us.