British, challenges of motherhood, Children, Culture, Dutch, Parenting Dutch Style, School

6 Reasons I’m Happy I’m Raising Children in the Netherlands

I live in a country where children generally fare well in happiness surveys and Dutch children always rate much higher in the happiness stakes than British children ever do.

It’s no coincidence that the Dutch shine through in reports such as the UN’s World Happiness Report. From what I see around me, the Dutch work consciously to raise happy, healthy, independent children* and I consider myself lucky to be raising three children here.

So, for the record, here are my six reasons why I’m happy I’m raising my children in the Netherlands.


1. School Allows Children to be Children

Dutch children are allowed to concentrate on what they do best: they are given plenty of time for the important job of play. Even though the majority of Dutch children start school at the age of 4 (though not mandatory until age 5) the theme running through their days remains ‘play’. They learn through play (spelenderwijs leren) and only when they start in group 3 (when they are 6 or 7) is there any pressure on them to formally start reading and writing. The foundation is laid in the earlier school years whilst there are no expectations of them. By the time they reach group 3 most children have learnt the basics of reading and writing in a playful, ‘no pressure’ manner.

My experience is that the focus in groups 1 and 2 of our little Dutch school is to help children work self sufficiently, to raise their social awareness, learn how to co-operate in a group, to look after and out for each other. These are the years that my children learn that there are rules and boundaries outside of their home too, in a classroom. But they learn this in a safe, respectful, playful way. 
My four year old has day and week tasks that consist of things like finger painting an autumn tree and building a hut with blocks. He proudly tells me how hard he has worked, how he has completed his week tasks and yet, in reality, he has spent the week creating and playing. Oh, and learning. 
Their future is not mapped out by the age of four.

My children will only start getting homework when they move to group 6. Yes, my eldest is asked to practice his times tables at home, and in group 1 and 2 he took bear home and (mama) had to write about what bear had done over the weekend, but hours of maths and language homework after school? No, not until he is nine or ten, and even then it is given in moderation. 
This gives my children time to do what they do best; they come home from school and play. Which brings me nicely to my second reason. 
2. An Outdoor Culture
The Dutch are outdoor people. And so are their children. If they are not cycling they are on steps, skateboards or roller skates. In winter they are on sledges or ice skates.

Children are encouraged to play on the streets in residential areas (where traffic signs indicate children are at play and the speed limit is severely reduced).

My children love being outdoors, love being active in all sorts of weather. It reminds me of my own childhood in Britain in the 1980s, when we entertained ourselves out on the street with nothing but our imaginations, or perhaps a ball and our bikes.

3. Child Friendly Society

We don’t have to walk far in our neighborhood to stumble over yet another children’s playground or park. They are all small scale but varied and numerous. If we really wanted to, we could visit a different playground on foot each day of the week. Neighbourhoods are designed with children in mind.

Similarly, many restaurants are child friendly and the amount of amusement parks, animal parks and children’s attractions across the Netherlands is just staggering for such a small country. There’s more than enough to entertain children of all ages.

4. A Sense of Community

Like many playgrounds, Dutch primary schools are also small scale, but numerous, and children usually attend a school close to home. School catchment areas are generally quite small (but not fixed – if you want to send your child to a school further away you may).

This means that school runs are generally done on foot or by bike, and when primary school children are older it gives them a sense of independence that children don’t feel being ferried to school in big cars, the type you see clogging up the roads around the schools in England.

I like that the Dutch tend to keep things local. My children go to school with children they live near. After school children play together in the local playgrounds with their classmates. It gives a sense of community. Work together, play together.

5. Dutch State

The importance of family filters down from the politicians. There are various state benefits for families with children: subsidies for child care as well as child benefit payments. State education is free. The Dutch youth care system is wide and varying – and in most cases the services are free.

It starts from birth with help from kraamzorg and continues with visits to the consultatiebureau, which, love it or hate it, is undeniably a unique service for parents. The system may not be perfect, but whenever I have needed a helping hand as a parent I’ve had welcome support. Even though I am an expat with a small family support network, I feel like I have people to lean on if I need it, because of the Dutch youth system.

This could easily be the motto of the Dutch when it comes to raising children

6. Work Life Balance

Last but absolutely not least, the focus on striking a balance between working and family life is extensive. Putting the emphasis on family life is ingrained in Dutch society.

More than a fair share of the working population works part-time, predominantly women, all with the aim of being around for their children and working around school hours. Again, love it or loathe it it is how it is. I happen to love it.

Parents, whatever their situation, need to find a work and family balance that works for them and the Dutch attitude and family culture means that parents have options.

Children have parents that, in general, have the opportunities and time to be present and involved.

It’s Not Hagelslag, It’s Attitude

So, my belief is that the happiness of Dutch children has nothing to do with hagelslag (sprinkles) on bread for breakfast as others have lightheartedly suggested, rather it stems from an attitude, a deep ingrained culture that focuses on children and allows them to make the most of childhood.

Dutch parents around me don’t put pressure on their children to grow up fast. Instead, they give them permission to be children for as long as possible and not worry about their future at a young age. I recently read a few articles about American parents pressuring their children to excel in many fields from a young age, both in and out of school, children that have an after school activity schedule that would make most Dutch children’s eyes water.

It’s true that the Dutch have a reputation for being liberal, a bit too liberal on some matters in some culture’s eyes, but what I see is an openness and a manner of carefully considered parenting that seems to work, which seems to foster independent children that feel listened to, that feel valued. Ones that are keen to tell researchers who care to ask that they are happy with their lot.

So, I for one intend to keep watching the parenting examples around me, and dish out good doses of Dutch parenting to my three sons. Hopefully, one day, when a UN researcher asks them questions for her World Happiness Report they’ll be as positive in their answers as the children that have gone before them.

What do you think makes Dutch children fare so well in happiness studies?Does the parenting culture in your host country differ widely to that in your birth country? Is the local parenting culture where you live something you aspire to?

*It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, that Dutch society has it’s share of problems, and that includes the lives of some children too. Some Dutch children live in poverty, some Dutch children live with absent parents, some Dutch children are deeply unhappy. I am in no way suggesting with this post that all Dutch children are ecstatically happy. However, there is a general culture related to parenting that I see every day around me. And that is the essence of this post.*

Seychelles Mama
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19 thoughts on “6 Reasons I’m Happy I’m Raising Children in the Netherlands”

  1. Hi Amanda, loved your post. I'm Dutch and it's always good to read something good about the Netherlands (rather than how RUDE the people are ;). My husband is American and our children were raised in the US and other foreign countries, so actually I don't know much about the Dutch system. It sounds excellent. Lucky kids!

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  2. Miss Footloose – thank you. There's lots to love about the Dutch and this beautiful country! And yes, I think my kids are lucky indeed!

    Bronwyn – you can certainly do worse than living here 🙂 I can take or leave the sprinkles (more a savory person) but my children…. whole other matter and hagelslag is strictly a treat in our house, and not a daily breakfast….. horrible mother that I am!!! 🙂

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  3. We try to do a lot of this with our children even through they are going through the British International Schools, they play, they play outdoors and they are children first and foremost. The childhood years go so fast it would be a shame for kids to grow up faster than they need to.

    Do they still have petting playgrounds in the Netherlands? When I was a kid there was a petting zoo with goats etc near many playgrounds. I loved it. I miss the Hagelslag but can get that here in Malaysia thank goodness. My kids think I am crazy when they see me eating it.

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  4. Ersatz Expat – love that beautiful summing up: “The childhood years go so fast it would be a shame for kids to grow up faster than they need to.”
    Yes, still a fair few petting playgrounds – lots of chickens, pigs and rabbits!

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  5. Amanda I've never been to the Netherlands but it sounds absolutely fantastic for raising children with a lot of ideals that match my own!
    I LOVE the no homework and letting kids “learn through play” until they are a little older and that's something that the international school my husband works at (Although he's secondary/6th form) is establishing…..so nice to see kids are able to stay kids. It's one of the reasons I wanted to raise kids abroad….for our kids not to feel pressured into being a grown up before they are, to enjoy their childhood!!

    Ahhh I could go on forever a wonderful post I don't blame you for being happy to be raising your children there, thank you so much for sharing this fantastic post with #myexpatfamily

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  6. There are so many good things about this post not least the learning through play and no homework. I think that as expats we're in a privileged position to be able to take the best from our home culture and combine it with our hosts to enable a well balanced and interesting childhood experience. The NL certainly sounds like a great place to raise kids. Linking up with #MyExpatFamily

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  7. There are so many good things about this post not least the learning through play and no homework. I think that as expats we're in a privileged position to be able to take the best from our home culture and combine it with our hosts to enable a well balanced and interesting childhood experience. The NL certainly sounds like a great place to raise kids. Linking up with #MyExpatFamily

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  8. Besides this post I also really enjoyed the everyone should be an expat at least once in their lives, I really connect with that one also, as. I've been there and can see the good ways it's changed me and been an eye opening experience …I also enjoy some of the similarities in the german culture. With the kids in school! Looking forward to seeing more of your posts x

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  9. Great post, very interesting to read. We were worried when we moved from the UK to US, but we've been very impressed so far with the area that we've moved to. Good schools, great community etc. I think Phoebe's comment is very true, we do get to combine the best of both worlds to give our children amazing experiences. #myexpatfamily

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  10. Hello from #myexpatfamily and thanks for an interesting post. We have spent ten years in France and our son has only experienced school here, not in the UK which is where we are from. Nursery here is very similar to your experiences, lots of play and no real lessons until aged six. Ed is now 14 and has never been overburdened with homework. I love it.

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  11. These are many of the reasons we chose expat life in Costa Rica, especially the outdoor life, as compared to our VERY indoor life in Canada – especially in the winter. Nice to 'meet' you!

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  12. Very interesting to read, and it also brought back memories of the Dutch kids I went to school with. I do remember their obsession with ice skating…
    On a serious note though, I can completely understand the point you make about schooling in particular. Here in Italy parents are very concerned about their kids' performance. When I was a teacher they would ask me why their 5-year-old had not been given more homework, or what English exam their 8-year-old could take. I find this very tough to get my head around.
    That said, Italians are also very family-friendly, which I love!

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  13. What an interesting, insightful post. I'm loving this #MyExpatFamily linky! What an awesome wealth of experience and lifestyles.

    Here in Sweden there are many similarities. Probably the biggest difference is societies attitude to children, or well, any person to person interaction… Warm isn't necessarily the word I'd use 😉

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  14. What an interesting, insightful post. I'm loving this #MyExpatFamily linky! What an awesome wealth of experience and lifestyles.

    Here in Sweden there are many similarities. Probably the biggest difference is societies attitude to children, or well, any person to person interaction… Warm isn't necessarily the word I'd use 😉

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  15. OOhh this is a nice read for me. I am currently in the UK but I am from the Philippines. This list that you provided reminds me of how things are education wise at home. It is nice to see the difference and the similarities! Thanks for sharing =) #MyExpatFamily

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  16. Thank you all for sharing your thoughts! It seems a general concensus that children should be allowed to be children for as long as possible, yet education systems across the world don't necessarily support that thinking…… an interesting topic!!

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