Tell us a little bit about the two of you. Me, Iben Dissing Sandahl, is an author, family counselor and licensed narrative psychotherapist, MPF, with a private practice just outside Copenhagen, Denmark. She specializes in counseling families and children. Originally trained as a teacher, she worked for ten years in the Danish school system before earning her degree in narrative psychotherapy. She is very passionate about her work and is regularly quoted in magazines, in newspapers, and on Danish national radio for her expert opinion. She is a wife and mother of two girls, Ida and Julie.
Have you read the book, “The Danish Way of Parenting”? No? You might want to run out and get it! Denmark has snatched the top spot on the United Nation’s World Happiness Report for several years now (2013, 2014 and 2016. They came in third 2015). What is it about the Danes, and when in life does it all start? The book,”The Danish Way of Parenting”, kind of gives you all the answers. I have talked to co-writer, Iben Dissing Sandahl, about the topic and their very popular book.
Jessica Alexander is an American author and cultural trainer. She graduated with a B.S. in psychology and went on to teach communication and writing skills in Scandinavia and Central Europe. She has been married to a Dane for thirteen years and has always been passionate about cultural differences. She speaks four languages and lives in Rome with her husband and two children, Sophia and Sebastian.
Why did you decide to write this book, how did the idea come about? Jessica wasn’t born with all those innate nurturing mother skills supposedly all women are born with. She wasn’t a kid person. So you can imagine her deep-seated fear when she got pregnant and thought, “How in the world am I going to do this? Surely she was going to be a terrible mom!” To her good fortune, she was married to a Dane. For more than eight years she had been exposed to the Danish culture, and one thing she noticed was that they were clearly doing something right with their children, and she started asking me for every single answer to every single question and discovered a philosophy of raising children that was far away from what she had experienced and seen in her own childhood.
Together Jessica and I discussed parenting - and especially Danish upbringing and together we asked the question, “Does a Danish way of parenting exist?” To my knowledge, it didn’t. We looked high and low for some literature on the subject, but there was nothing. In all my years working in the Danish school system and being a family psychotherapist, I had never heard of a “Danish Way.” I knew all the academic theories and the research on parenting practices, many of which I used in my family life on a daily basis, but could there be a distinctive parenting style embedded in my very own culture that I hadn’t seen? The more we talked about it, the more it became clear that there was indeed a Danish parenting philosophy, but it was woven so tightly into the fabric of daily life and Danish culture that it wasn’t immediately visible to those of us in the midst of it. The more we looked at it, the more the pattern emerged from the fabric. And there it was, laid out before us: The Danish Way of Parenting.
Would you say that the parenting ways are pretty similar in the Scandinavian countries or is “the Danish way” somehow unique? We know, that there are some similarities and common upbringing philosophies for all Scandinavian Countries for sure. And there could be great things to learn from especially the school system up there, we know, but because Im Danish and Jessica is American - and the fact, that Denmark constantly is voted as one of the happiest Countries in the world, our focus were on Denmark and the differences to America only. We still believe Denmark is kind of unique.
How do you define a happy childhood in Denmark? A happy childhood overall, I would define as a childhood where it is safe and where there are clear limits. Where parents take responsibility and guide the children to make choices based on their own limits and abilities. A childhood, where there has been unconditional love and lots of time to play. Where children are allowed to explore this unpolished, free and imaginative children's world - without a lot of concerns. A childhood with respect for the individual, but with focus on the community. A childhood where the child meets lots of people that loves them.
Do you feel the Danes have a more collective responsibility for their culture and how they bring up their children? Yes. It is characteristic for Danes that we basically think as a community, where we depend on each other. It's part of our culture and mentality that we are interdependent, and that our collective responsibility is what carries us forward in life. Our children learn about teamwork and collaborating in school, how to help each other and how to exploit and use the differences. That kind of mentality is not that common in the United States. There your happiness depends on that you –yourself are doing well. A man is his own fortune, and if you do not perform, there is not as in Denmark, a safety net to catch you. Therefore, the culture in the United States is much more individualistic and less community oriented than it is in Denmark. This is reflected in bringing up children of course.
How do you think you should balance learning vs. play to give your child the best start in life? Central to the Danish parenting philosophy is a concept called “proximal development,” first introduced by Lev Vygotsky, a Russian developmental psychologist. This basically states that a child needs the right amount of space to learn and grow in the zones that are right for him or her, with the right amount of help. In Denmark, there isn’t a sole emphasis on education or sports, but rather on the whole child. Parents and teachers focus on things like socialization, autonomy, cohesion, democracy, and self-esteem. We want our children to learn resilience and develop a strong internal compass to guide them through life. We know our kids will be well educated and learn many skills. But true happiness isn’t coming only from a good education. A child who learns to cope with stress, makes friends, and yet is realistic about the world has a set of life skills that are very different from only being a math genius, for example. We know that free play teaches children to be less anxious? It teaches them resilience. And resilience has been proven to be one of the most important factors in predicting success as an adult. And the fact that we all have gone to nursery, kindergarten or school makes us all "experts" in the field, when we've been taught in this pedagogy without even knowing it.
Are modern kids too busy? Football practice, swimming lessons, ballet classes etc. Should parents make room for more free time for the kids? Yes, in a way. As we are more and more influenced by trends and tendencies from the United States and elsewhere, we can see, unfortunately, more focus on performing and becoming the best here as well by activating our kids too much, tests in schools and striving to be the better one. It is difficult to avoid, because we are a part of the norms and discourses that characterize our society right now. What we can do though, is to recognize that there should be less focus on performing and instead create space for free play much more. Free play, is where our children meet themselves right where they are developmentally.
Is there anything Denmark can learn? Yes, the most important thing I can come up with, as a Dane, is that we successfully have conceptualized a new parenting theory – a theory that many of us didn't know and therefore took for granted in our everyday life. Much of it is so ingrained to us, that we do not know that people abroad find it so different and valuable. To articulate these deep-rooted phenomena has been an exciting process, and I think that Danes can use that, when we are asked what it is we build our educational foundation in the upbringing on.
What do you think other countries can learn from Denmark? From all the feedback that we have received from parents who have digested our ideas and trying them out with their own families it has been more than just positive: It has been full of gratitude and even relief that a parenting practice existed and furthermore supported a suspicion they had felt in their gut all along. A feeling that there must be another way to raise children, but one they had quashed due to societal expectations and pressure to do things “the right way.” Parents wrote us saying they loved the idea of focusing on play, empathy, and social skills—not just academics—as crucial elements to educating a child. And the fact that these practices were already in place in a thriving, happy society was eye-opening for many readers who hadn’t heard much about Denmark before. We also discovered that the book was used in colleges. One professor contacted us to tell us about a course she had created based on "The Danish Way of Parenting"—to rave reviews from her students, whose minds were opened to a different way of raising kids. A visiting Indian businessman bought the book on his way home from Denmark. He wrote to us that he wants to introduce "The Danish Way of Parenting" across India: into classes, pediatrician's offices, and teacher training programs as well as to the public at large. “This is not a book,” he wrote us, “it’s a movement. And I see it as a movement to change a country.” So you see – somehow there is a great need for a book like ours out there, and that we feel very grateful for.
For more information about "The Danish Way of Parenting", visit thedanishway.com.