First we were supposed to be Tiger Moms. Then it was the French who knew their bébés better. Today it's the Dutch who are winning at parenting and I, for one, am getting jet lag from all of the international comparisons.
Shortly after my oldest daughter was born, Amy Chua released a bombshell on the parenting world with her book "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother," a memoir about her journey to raise her children the Chinese way, with strict discipline and high expectations. Chua argued that while Western parents spend their hours trying to nurture their child's individuality and find the path that is right for them, Asian parents arm their children with the skills and rock-solid work ethic they need to achieve in any field. Kids don't need pampering, Chua reflected; they need diligent practice and eyes glued firmly on their goals.
Western parents flocked to sign their children up for summer classes, music lessons, and extra tutoring sessions in the hopes that being a Tiger Mom would help their children succeed.
Just a few months later, the parenting pendulum swung again with the release of Pamela Druckerman's "Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting." Druckerman argued that the French style of je ne sais quoi parenting led to more well-behaved children, happier families and more fulfilled parents. While American parents cater to their child's every whim, Druckerman observed, French parents expect their children to try new foods and entertain themselves when they play. The result is children who eat a variety of healthy foods (there are no "kids menus," in French restaurants Druckerman notes,) join the conversation at mealtime, and are proud of their independence.
American parents responded by buying an assortment of French cheeses and drinking wine at playdates while attempting not to hover over their children.
And then came the Dutch
Fast-forward a few more years and a new study has parents eager to go Dutch, not because they want to split the tab at a restaurant, but because they have been told that Dutch children — and therefore Dutch families — are the happiest in the world. According to a 2013 UNICEF report, Dutch children scored highest when compared to 29 of the world's richest developed nations in terms of five key factors of well-being: financial status; health and safety; education; behaviors and risks; and housing and environment.
By the way, the United States ranked 26th on the list, just above Lithuania, Latvia and Romania, the three poorest countries in the survey.
In addition, 95 percent of Dutch children consider themselves "happy," a feeling that seems to begin in the baby years, where research has found that Dutch infants are more content, easier to soothe, and who laugh, smile, and cuddle more than American babies.
In their book, "The Happiest Kids in the World: A Stress-Free Approach to Parenting ― the Dutch Way," Rina Mae Acosta and Michele Hutchinson argue that Dutch children have freedoms that children in the U.K.and U.S. have never known. Acosta (who is American) and Hutchinson (who is British), both married Dutchmen and live in the Netherlands. Both moms note that Dutch children are allowed to play outside and ride their bikes unsupervised, they have no homework or standardized testing in primary school, and they enjoy simple pleasures with secondhand toys and time with family and friends.
Happiness — it's a Dutch thing
In a recent article in the Telegraph, Acosta and Hutchinson explain that the happiness of Dutch children goes hand in hand with the overall happiness of Dutch people of all ages.
"Parents have a healthy attitude towards their kids, seeing them as individuals rather than as extensions of themselves," Acosta and Hutchinson wrote. "They understand that achievement doesn’t necessarily lead to happiness, but that happiness can cultivate achievement. The Dutch have reined in the anxiety, stress and expectations of modern-day parenting, redefining the meaning of success and wellbeing."
Acosta and Hutchinson elaborate further on how awesome the Dutch are: Children don't compete with their classmates but rather aim to be friendly and helpful to one another; similarly Dutch mothers don't compete or make each other feel guilty about their shortcomings. And while I'm sure their reflections are spot-on, I can't help but wonder what good it does anyone to turn the happiness of children into some kind of international competition.
But aren't we all looking for the same thing?
I honestly can't say how parents do parenting in the Netherlands, but what I do know is that there is no one way that parenting is done here in the U.S. There are anxious parents who hover over their kids' every moves, as well as "free range" parents who are regularly arrested for allowing their children too much freedom. And then there's everything in between.
One thing that threads us all together — the ambitious tiger moms, the French laissez faire parents, the happy Dutch parents, and the mishmash of American parents — is that we all have more or less the same goals when it comes to our children: to help them grow into happy and healthy adults. As long as we're all striving toward those goals, why do we need to worry about who might be doing it better?