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The Happiest Country On Earth Is Proof Positive Parenting Works

Happy babies are more likely to become happy children and subsequently, happy adults: it's logical, makes sense and it's a notion which has affected my decision making as a conscious parent over the last few years. How we choose to parent our children matters and the Danes have a unique approach which seems to be working.

Two of my favourite things related to writing about positive parenting are the inspiring people I cross paths with and the incredible lessons they've taught me about life, love and happiness. Back in March this year, Jessica Joelle Alexander, emailed me about her book, The Danish Way of Parenting, sharing it and asking if I'd like to read it.

Life was full at the time and it took me a couple of months to open it, but when I did I couldn't put it down. The simplicity of her and co-author Iben Sandahl's message is compelling and based around asking the question: why are the Danish people consistently reputed to be the happiest in the world? They suggest the Danes' elevated level of innate happiness is rooted in the way the nation's children are parented.

Happy babies are more likely to become happy children and subsequently, happy adults: it's logical, makes sense and it's a notion which has affected my decision making as a conscious parent over the last few years. How we choose to parent our children matters, and the Danes have a unique approach which seems to be working.

Jessica and Iben outline a simple six-point acronym to guide parents in cultivating lasting happiness in our own families, no matter where we live. What I love most about The Danish Way is their refreshing, no-nonsense approach, combined with realistic optimism, kindness and empathy. The ironic acronym used to remember the pillars of this philosophy is PARENT. Here's an insight into what the Danes do a little differently.

P is for Play

Play is the language of children, and in Denmark protecting children's right to free play is taken very seriously. It's considered crucial, not optional. Over-scheduling kids is actively avoided and you're more likely to hear a Danish parent say their child is going to play in the backyard on Saturday rather than take part in organized sport. And by "play" they mean kids are left to their own devices, with a friend or alone, to play exactly as they see fit, for as long as they want.

The Danes recognize play teaches social skills, empathy, self-control, coping mechanisms and much more. Whereas, in most Western nations, free play is a sadly endangered species. I was disturbed when I read an article recently reporting some parents are sending their children to "boot camp" to prepare them for kindergarten. Elizabeth Fraley, director of KinderPrep in Los Angeles says, "When children get into kindergarten, there is no play."

Taking away a child's ability to play is like taking away their voice; our society needs to realize the detrimental effects of rushing children through childhood and learn from countries like Denmark who are taking a different approach.

A is for Authenticity

The Danes like to "keep it real." They're honest with their children about the good, bad and ugly of life. Danish movies, stories and books often deal with difficult topics and don't always have happy endings. "Keeping it real" can deepen empathy and can make us happier in a "count your blessings" kind of way.

As parents, we walk a fine line of exposing our children to age-appropriate topics, while shielding them from the harsh realities of our world, which sometimes I find I can't even handle myself. Finding a balance, which is right for our individual children, can enrich our connection. And talking through difficult emotions helps prepare our kids for life's ups and downs, making them more resilient.

R is for Reframing

John Milton famously said, "The mind can make a heaven out of hell or a hell out of heaven." I've found this especially true in parenting -- we're pushed to our limits and often feel alone, without a village or family support. Being awake at 3 a.m. with a crying baby can easily be interpreted as hell, but flipping the script, accepting the reality, not labeling it and finding gratitude can make us joyful in the most unlikely of moments.

The Danish practice of reframing is a cultural phenomenon passed from one generation to the next; it's incredibly powerful and results in the "realistic optimism" Danes are famous for. The Danish Way challenges us to alter our language and reinterpret a situation in a less negative way, which is proven to change how we feel. Reframing can be learned and it is a life-changing skill, not only for kids, but for adults, too.

E is for Empathy

The Danes are one of the most empathic cultures in the world and it may be because they actively teach empathy in schools. It has the same value as subjects like Math or English, with programs in place to teach kids to identify others' emotions and conceptualize themselves in others' shoes and feel for them.

As parents we can also help foster empathy. Our children are born with an incredible ability for natural empathy -- when a baby hears another baby crying, they'll often start crying, too. But we subconsciously drum it out of them; we do it out of love as we try to protect them from difficult emotions.

When our child sees another child hurt at the playground, our immediate reaction may be to say, "They're fine, don't worry." It seems innocent enough but we're teaching our kids they don't need to worry about other's feelings. Yet, if we tackle feelings head on and say something like, "He's crying because he fell down and hurt his knee. It's bleeding, isn't it? But, his mummy is there, she'll give him a big hug and he'll be OK," kids can recognize and process emotions, while finding ways to help other's and nourish their ability for empathy.

N is for No ultimatums.

No-ultimatums parenting is about avoiding power struggles. It's about a win/win rather than an "I win" situation. It's about seeing our children as allies rather than adversaries. Many conventional disciplinary practices such as spanking, time outs, punishments and rewards threaten to transform our homes into battlegrounds, making parenting a chore rather than a privilege.

Spanking has been illegal in Denmark for over 20 years, which reflects the values of the society and the democratic, respectful way in which parents choose to raise their children. Modelling respectful behaviour is the best way to teach children how we expect them to behave.

T is for Togetherness (and Hygge)

Hygge, pronounced hooga, means "to cozy around together." Hygge is spending time together with loved ones in a cozy, psychologically safe environment. Everyone enters into an unspoken agreement that, for this period of time, no one complains, brags or brings up negative or controversial topics, creating a drama-free space.

Children thrive in these intentionally positive moments that foster happiness and well-being through prioritizing social connectedness. The next time you have a family get together, try "hygge" (the rules are outlined in the book).

The Danes Are Positive Parents

Learning about the way the Danish culture approaches parenting and the long-term impacts it may be having on their nation's happiness is fascinating. I also find it incredibly encouraging as it has so much in common with natural parenting techniques, recognizing and responding to our children in the way they need.

The only downside to the Danish Way is it highlights the lack of support for positive parenting choices we experience in our Western culture. But, short of us all moving to Denmark, I hope we can support and inspire each other in our choices, that we can remain courageously open-minded and grow not only as parents but as people on this wonderful adventure with our children.

A version of this post originally appeared on Raised Good.

If you resonated with this article please subscribe to my personal blog, Raised Good. You will receive a free copy of my eBook Parenting by Nature which will help free you from the "rules" of modern parenting. And I'd love to connect on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram.

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