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Dutch Children

Tamsin Walker
February 20, 2007

A recent report on the well-being of children and young people in the world's advanced economies says the Netherlands offers the best environment for children. So what are Dutch youngsters getting that others are not?

Happy days are here againImage: AP

The research, which focused on material well-being, health and safety, education, peer and family relationships, behaviors and risks, and young people's own subjective sense of well-being, to assess child happiness, proved beyond all doubt that the key to a happy child is a happy family. And that is where the Netherlands comes in.

Carolien Gelauff of the Netherlands Youth Institute said a lot of emphasis is put on the family.

"The family is important," she said. "A lot of time is spent raising children, making sure they have a nice time growing up. The notion of having happy childhood is common sense."

Kinder beim Essen
Eating together is a part of family lifeImage: dpa

Yet, apparently not everywhere. While more than 70 percent of 15 year-olds in the Netherlands report that their parents spend time just talking to them several times per week, the figure in Germany is just above 40 percent.

Similarly 90 percent of Dutch children in the same age group said they eat the main meal of the day with their parents several times per week, whereas that number dips down to around the 65 percent mark in countries like Britain and the US, where there is a greater likelihood of both parents being out at work all day.

Protected freedom

Rob van der Beek, a father of two, said it is common in the Netherlands for women to put their careers on hold while they invest in their families.

"It is important to give children a warm and protective environment to grow up in," he said. "But within that, they should have the freedom to go and discover the world. That is our way of thinking."

Kinder spielen Ball - Scheibe kaputt
Learning by doingImage: Bilderbox

Ruut Veenhoven, a professor of social conditions for human happiness at Rotterdam's Erasmus University, agreed that such thinking is typical of the Netherlands.

"You could say the dominant philosophy is to allow children to be free to explore and become independent," he said.

Subjective sense of well-being

Particularly interesting is the way in which young people in the Netherlands perceive their own well-being. In the study, children aged 11, 13 and 15 were asked: Here is a ladder. The top of the ladder, 10, is the best possible life for you and the bottom, 0, is the worst possible life for you. In general, where on the ladder do you feel you stand at the moment?

Schüler auf dem Schulweg
Off to schoolImage: AP

More than 90 percent of Dutch children rated themselves above the middle of the life satisfaction scale. They don't drink, smoke or have sex more than average, and the vast majority even claim to like school "a lot."

Gelauff said schools are very child-friendly places.

"Achieving is important, but there is no sense in overdoing it," she said. "The world is a hard enough place when children grow up, so parents should be there for their children."

Women at work

Unlike mothers in some other European countries, women in the Netherlands tend to take long periods of leave after having a baby, and then when they do eventually go back, they often work shorter hours.

"We are world champions at working part-time," Gelauff said. "Especially the women."

Veenhoven believes this working trend is quite significant.

"Although it cannot explain the differences to other countries entirely, there is some indication that the number of part-time working mothers contributes to child happiness," he said.

Part of the paternal program?Image: dpa

The same options of shorter working hours are open to men too, although Gelauff said it is less common.

"Men say it is not so easy for them because it is harder to build a career if you work part-time, but some men only work four days a week," she said, adding that the paternal role has changed a lot in the past years. "Fathers are much more involved than in the old days. They play with children, look after them, do sport with them, take them swimming and so on."

All of this contributes to what she describes as an overall necessity to "take children seriously and pay attention to their needs."

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