Learning from the Dutch: Are Filipino Parents Raising Their Kids to be Happy?

Parents usually do what they do to make their children happy – or what they think make their children happy. The question is: are our children happy?

A Unicef report a few years back has ranked Dutch children as the happiest in the world. What makes these children happy? Do Dutch parents raise their kids differently? To learn more about parenting in the Netherlands, I referred to an article published on The Telegraph. Written by Rina Mae Acosta and Michele Hutchison, foreigners married to Dutchmen, it listed what they observed to be the reasons Dutch kids are having the time of their lives.

1) Dutch children start formal school late.

Children in the Netherlands take things easy during their formative years (of course, they should!). They may start school at four, but the first three years of their learning system isn’t structured. Reading, writing, and math are not mandatory until the age of six.

In the Philippines, many parents start their children in playschool as early as two. They then move the kids to preschool at the age of three or four. Although the law says formal school begins at five, some parents start enrolling their children for Kumon sessions or preschool classes at three.

2) Dutch children don’t bother with homework in primary school.

School-age Dutch kids can completely switch their minds off lessons once classes are over. They can then train their attention on playtime or their hobbies without feeling guilty.

Homework is an integral part of the Philippine school system, despite the Department of Education’s (DepEd) announcement to stop assigning homework on weekends. My kids complain that the added workload is mostly due to performance tasks (PeTa). The DepEd mandated performance-based assessment when it implemented classroom reforms in preparation for the K to 12 Basic Education Program. Under this system, students are required to submit mini and grand PeTas as a culmination of their learning per subject, on top of quizzes, long exams, and recitation.

3) Dutch children feel no pressure to compete.

Dutch parents “understand that achievement doesn’t necessarily lead to happiness, but happiness cultivates achievement,” the article stated. According to the research authors, Dutch parents have not succumbed to modern-day parenting expectations, which often create artificial stress and anxiety. They don’t compare their children’s achievements and have established their own standards of wellbeing and success, which are anchored on their happiness and that of their children.

The writers added that parents aren’t concerned about their children being the smartest, but more about these kids being the easiest (to manage).

In contrast, many of us Filipinos were raised with “performance” in mind. At an early age, we became conscious of grades and class standing. Our parents compared us with our peers or pitted us against each other for the position of valedictorian, summa cum laude, or whatnot – a behavior we’ve passed on to our kids. These demands could be the reason for recent school-related suicides among younger people.

4) Dutch children enjoy freedom from parental control.

Dutch parents allow their children to play outside on their own or ride their bikes to school alone. This may be consistent with their relationship with their kids, whom they see as separate human beings rather than an extension of themselves that they needed to control. It may also be the explanation to why Dutch children are free to eat chocolate sprinkles for breakfast, and no parent will scold them.

5) Dutch children spend more time with their parents.

I think the most convincing clue to why Dutch children are happy is their parents. Happy parents raise happy children. To know why Dutch parents are happy, I looked at their government-mandated leaves.

Time off work and paid leaves in the Netherlands are among the most abundant and flexible in the world. Regular, full-time workers get a minimum of 20 paid holiday leaves (or four weeks) per year. They can take as long as two to three weeks of consecutive paid vacation leaves, or more with special permission from their employer. Newlyweds get the one-time opportunity to extend their leave to four weeks to make the most of their honeymoon. Part-time workers get four times their weekly man-hours for annual paid leave.

Expectant mothers are eligible for four to six weeks of paid pregnancy leave before their due date and at least 10 weeks of maternity leave after childbirth. New fathers or partners of new moms get one week of paid partner/paternity leave, regardless of their employment status. By July 2020, they will be allowed to take five weeks of unpaid leave during the first six months after the child’s birth to spend time with their family.

Parents with children eight years old and below may also opt to take an unpaid parental leave to take care of their children. Some employers, however, pay part of their salary during this time. Parents who have to look after a sick child or parent may also file for a short-term care leave (partly paid) or a long-term care leave (unpaid).

Now I’m super-jealous! With Dutch parents spending more time with their families, they’d naturally acquire a positive vibe and their kids develop a stronger relationship with them through bonding time. It’s no wonder that Dutch babies tend to laugh, smile and cuddle more than babies in the US, as the Unicef report discovered.

With all these aspects, can Filipino parents adopt the Dutch style of parenting?

Possibly.

But to answer this question, we need to look beyond just the happy kids.

Let’s start with the right age to go to school. I think one of the reasons Filipino parents start their kids early in school is that children absorb knowledge faster within the first five years. We want to take advantage of this period to jumpstart our children’s mental development, so that they would be fully equipped to excel in formal school. But why?

For many Filipino families, school is not optional; it’s necessary. It’s crucial for both the parents and children to earn a living as soon as they can. The earlier the children finish their education, the earlier they can look for a job, and the earlier the parents can say goodbye to tuition and hello to savings.

In the Philippines, education is seen as an essential enabler of progress. If you’re educated, you can earn more.

Following the same mindset, Filipino children are prepared at an early age to face competition. We parents assume that if our kids are achievers, more opportunities will come their way. Though it isn’t always true, the reality in our country is that the government doesn’t provide much for our welfare, and opportunities are skewed toward the ones on top.

Filipino parents are obliged to work harder to support their families, and laws governing the workplace are not always kind to us. Surprisingly, our Labor Code mandates only five days of service incentive leave for employees who have worked at least a year in the company.

Dutch families don’t feel the same urgency to compete. Their government provides well for their basic needs and whatever they attain after school is for their personal satisfaction. Children are not compelled to graduate early or be top of the class; whatever they do, they can afford a lovely house and garden, a car or bike, three meals a day, and no traffic jams.

Safety is another issue. Many Filipino parents (like me) would love to set our kids free to explore the world, but the risks are too high today than when we were kids. Between social media, child predators, road hazards, natural calamities, and our kids’ own vulnerabilities, there are just too many things to watch out for.

However, these are not excuses to stifle our children’s freedom and individuality.

Our attitude toward our children is something we can learn from our Dutch counterparts, who, according to the Telegraph article, are more family-oriented and conservative than the world paints them.

We might be controlling our kids’ lives and decisions because we want to protect them from the pain and mistakes we’ve experienced, not realizing that they need to learn from their own life lessons. We might be putting too much emphasis on what we assume to be their source of happiness without asking them if that’s what they value. We might be looking too far into the future by teaching them big world-survival skills at three than allowing them to live their childhood as a child.

Remember, an unhappy child may become a miserable adult someday.

As parents, our first duty is to make our children happy now so that they will grow up to be happy adults. There’s no cut and dried way to do that; each child is unique.

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