Welcome to part 2, of ‘Who wants Happy Kids?’, its about the Danish and Dutch way of parenting – who claim to have the happiest kids in the world. This blog covers Re framing, Empathy and No Ultimatums. Part one can be read by clicking here and covered Play, Trust and Authenticity. The names of the books being reviewed and further reading can be found at the end of the page.
4. Re framing –
In general the Danes have a way of making everything sound positive and good, no matter what happens; they re frame something and draw on the silver lining! Ask a Dane how the weather is, even in the worst, coldest weather they may respond ‘Well at least I’m at work’ or ‘Glad I’m not on holiday’ or ‘There’s no such thing as bad weather just bad clothing’. They are said to be realistic optimists, not ignoring the facts but simply choosing the best way to look at something. So they turn things around and make the best of a situation. They focus on the good in people instead of the bad. Re framing is a key trait in resilience and numerous tests in the States have been carried out to prove that if we deliberately reinterpret an event to feel better about it, it decreases our negative emotions; A group of children were told to look at a number of angry faces and just think to themselves ‘they’ve just had a bad day’, and the other control group were shown the same pictures but told nothing. The group that were trained to adjust their attitude weren’t disturbed at all by the angry faces and the control group were disturbed by the faces, proving that we feel what we think. If we can do this ourselves it could set up our children to be less affected or upset by others.
Limiting language is when we say things like ‘I can’t..’ ‘I hate..’ instead of ‘I prefer…’ or ‘I’m trying to…’ ‘I’m learning to…’ etc. For children we need to steer them away from limiting self belief such as ‘I hate maths’, ‘I’m fat’ or ‘I’ve no friends’ and guide them to more positive ‘I’m working on my maths’, ‘I’m learning to eat healthy’ and ‘I’m learning how to make friends’.
There is also a danger in labeling children and they will then live up to the label you have given them. If for example you have ‘shy’ child or a ‘troublesome’ child they will get wind of this label and then believe it to be true and live up to your expectations of them forever more. They look for more and more negative conclusions about themselves. So watch yourself when you start the conversation about which of your children is the ‘troublemaker’, or the ‘sensitive one’ try looking at all the positive attributes they have and use them to describe the child instead. Also if your child is being hard on themselves teach them how to re frame it in their mind. For example if they played badly in a match and they are saying ‘I’m rubbish at football’ you can practice being honest and re framing ‘well you didn’t play your best today, but remember that time a few weeks ago when you helped score a goal’.
There is not enough words to emphasize the power of empathy. It connects us to others, helps us maintain strong relationships, which gets us through hard times, and has been proven to be the ‘single most important factor in making successful leaders, entrepreneurs, managers and businesses’. The Danes have a ‘fundamental belief that caring about others happiness is crucial for their own happiness’ and many studies proves that is true for all of us.
It’s up to the parents
As with everything, it’s the parents responsibility to show empathy at home. However it’s not only families where children are exposed to physical, psychological or sexual abuse that will have difficulty empathizing and feeling for others; but also families who are very over protective! Parents who don’t want their child to fail or feel big emotions, who give in to their child’s every wish or desire, who try to ‘protect’ their children from their own various reactions – a child is learning that there is a mismatch between feeling and actions, and not how to self-regulate their emotions. (This was also partly discussed ‘authenticity’ in part 1).
Don’t tell them how to feel
children who are told how to feel or behave a lot, won’t develop the same as those who are not – so be careful if you say things like ‘stop crying’ ‘don’t be upset’ ‘you should be happy’ ‘don’t be jealous’. We need to ask questions and get them talking about their emotions and not be ashamed of them or try to bury them. We know boys in particular find it harder to show and share emotions as teenagers, so we have to change the culture in our families from ‘big boys don’t cry’…. to ‘talk to me, how are you feeling, tell me whats wrong’ with no shame or judgement.
Think about children laughing or teasing someone who is upset/afraid/lonely in school – wouldn’t you want your child to be the one to go up and put their arm around that child and and try to help them? We have to show care, help and respect for others, even strangers, every chance we get in order to show our children how to make the world a better place to live. The other day, I helped an old man on crutches, by giving him a lift from the bus stop to his home, he was moving very very slowly, and it was obvious he was in a lot of pain. He was a complete stranger and I noticed him as I drove home from a shopping trip. It turned out he was just released from hospital, after being involved in some kind of accident and he hardly had a word of English. I’m not a saint, and I admit I don’t do things like this often, so I was so pleased that my 3 children were in the back seat of the car during this 10-15 minute detour. I wanted them to witness what it’s like to do a good deed… the will I, or won’t I discussion I had with myself, the turning the car around and helping a person in need. They asked me a lot of questions on the way home and they told me it would have taken the man hours to get home at the speed he was moving! We all felt good for helping him.
Good character of others
Danish parents only point out the good character of other people’s children ‘he’s such a great footballer’ or ‘She’s a very kind girl’ etc. So their children are not hearing any negative things about anyone else, only good. So they therefore only think positively of others. And by the way, the parents are not saving the bitching until the children are out of earshot, they genuinely only look for the good. If their child came to them with a complaint or problem about another child, they would talk to them about what happened and say something like ‘Oh really, but John is usually such a good friend, do you think he was tired or upset today?’ Imagine how much happier we’d be if every time someone upset us we were able to say to ourselves ‘Oh they must be having a bad day or really tired, I’ll just let it go’. That’s not to say we don’t stand up for ourselves when we need to, but when it’s a once off, learning to let things go is a very good lesson for our mental health.
A very interesting point is that we don’t have to give in and make our children do things they don’t want to do just because its socially awkward for us. The example given is if two children are fighting over a spade, lets pretend your child has the spade and the other is crying for it, we don’t just take the item and give it to the other child because they are crying and we are embarrassed that our child is not sharing! We have empathy for our own child’s feelings, that they don’t want to share. If they don’t work it out themselves after a few minutes, maybe we can ask if they want to give the child a turn for a few minutes. This is valuable when our children turn into teenagers and feel peer pressure in more serious circumstances, we are showing them that they can trust their own feelings, and not give in and do something they don’t want to do.
6. No Ultimatums
Even from a young age children start to exert power – they refuse to drink their milk or eat their food… at what age do we adults start with the ultimatums? Around 2 or 3 years old? I have a 2 (almost 3) year old and I’ve already started; ‘If you eat your dinner, you’ll get a treat’. ‘If you let me put your pajamas on, I’ll read you some stories’. Well the Danes don’t agree with using ultimatums at all. It is a good reminder to hear this: we are the adults and we need to stay calm, taking deep breaths when we need to, not losing our cool, agreeing that we should have rules about no shouting (or hitting) – since we know that our children will mirror us. But how do we actually follow through? Raising children can be down right difficult. Here are some tips from the Danes:
1. Discuss the behavior as being wrong, not the child. E.g. ‘Hurting your brother was wrong’ instead of ‘You are so mean for hurting your brother’.
2. Don’t blame the child for what they’ve done – they are trying to show you something by this behavior, for example, if its a protest they may be trying to show you they want more independence. You have to figure out what they are trying to show you and why? Are they looking for attention, frustrated, angry about something.. listen to them.
3. Don’t blame them for making you snap – take responsibility for it, if you were in front of a teacher /Principal / other Parent would you have snapped? Probably not, so you can control it when you want to. Remember you are the adult and they are mirroring you – calm begets calm.
4. See the child as inherently good, and re frame (in a positive way) what is going on and try to find a solution. An open discussion with the right attitude can help you to overcome the problem. Remember we never label them as naughty, mad, crazy, troublesome etc.
5. Be accepting of their feelings. Be firm and tell the child what you want them to do, repeat as necessary.
7. Final Points
There are so many useful points in both books, here are some that I didn’t discuss.
- Family time is of utmost importance to the Danes and Dutch – they work less hours and spend more time with family. They generally ‘work to live’ and don’t ‘live to work’. Grandparents often spend a day a week with their grandchildren helping with childcare.
- Family get-togethers involve lots of games for everyone to get involved in. There are generally no screens allowed. The unspoken rules seem to be ‘ no complaining, comparing, judging, bitching or boasting’ just good fun for all. Research shows that one of the top predictors of health and well-being is quality time with friends and family.
- The Dutch are big into camping and the great outdoors, and lots of them spend long periods of their holidays camping in Holland and around Europe.
- They are also very big into buying second hand clothes and toys for their children, and are not interested in competition with others and who has what. They are openly careful with money and brag about what great deals they get instead of showing off or trying to keep up with others.
- Pay attention to your negativity and practice re framing, use less limiting language and separate the actions from the person.
- To teach empathy don’t be over protective, allow them to feel big emotions; remember to show them yours.
- Allow children to feel upset/angry/sad/disappointed or any emotion, without judgement. Let them know its okay.
- Teach your children about emotions from a young age, and how to read other peoples emotions. Reading books really helps teach empathy. Lead by example in helping others.
- Show empathy for others in the language you use about other children and people, show empathy for your own children by allowing them to stand their ground in socially difficult situations.
- No ultimatums – find other ways to sort out problems, think of children as inherently good, don’t label them, start with yourself, and practice calm, open but firm discussions. Get to the bottom of why they’re acting this way.
- Have as much quality family time as you can, especially in the outdoors.
- Decrease the reliance on material things. Remember stuff doesn’t make us happy, people do.
The biggest overall message that I am taking from these books is that children are happiest when their parents are positive, relaxed and happy themselves. So even if we forget some of the details, we just try our best to be positive and it will rub off on our children.
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References/ Further reading
‘The Danish Way of Parenting – What the happiest people in the world know about raising confident, capable kids’. Jessica Joelle Alexander and Iben Dissing Sandahl
‘The Happiest Kids in the World – Bringing up children the Dutch way’ Rina Mae Acosta and Michele Hutchenson
Angry faces. G. Sheppes, S. Scheibe, G. Suri, P. Radu, J. Bleehert, and J.J.Gross, “Emotion Regulation Choice: A Conceptual Framework and Supporting Evidence,” Journal of Experimental Psychology 143. no. 1 (2014):163-81.
‘We know that empathy is the single most important factor in making successful leaders, entrepreneurs, managers and businesses’ ‘Successful people do not operate alone; each of us needs the support of others to achieve positive results that push us toward our goals’. Ashoka, ‘Why Empathy Is the Force That Moves BusinessForward,” Forbes, May 30, 2013, http://www.forbes.com/sites/ashoka/2013/05/30/why-empathy-is-the-force-that-moves-business-forward/.
Brene Brown: “People are afraid to be vulnerable for disconnecting… we are the most in debt, obese, addicted, and medicated society in the world.” ‘The Power of Vulnerability’ June 2010 TED https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability
Meaningful friend and family relationships are the most important factors in true happiness, well above having a lot of money. Tal Ben-Shahar. “Five Steps for Being Happiuer Today.” Big Think video, 1.46 2011, http://bigthink.com/users/talbenshahar