Health and Wellness

I spent 7 years studying Dutch parenting—here are 6 secrets to raising the happiest kids in the world

The OECD expects GDP growth in the Netherlands to remain strong in 2018 and 2019. House prices have recovered and in major cities have surpassed the level reached before the financial crisis. That's a sign of economic sentiment but does make the mortgage market vulnerable.
Tristan Fewings | Getty Images

My investigation into why Dutch children are so happy begins at my home in Doorn, a tiny Dutch village with a population of 10,000.

Located in the central Netherlands, Doorn is mostly populated by young families, pensioners, nature lovers and folks seeking a slower pace of life. It's also 5,478 miles from San Francisco, a place I called home for most of my life.

My husband Bram, a Dutch entrepreneur, and I moved here 10 years after we got married. When I became pregnant with my first son, Bram Julius, I was apprehensive. I devoured all the (unsolicited) advice on various contradictory parenting philosophies.

Discovering the Dutch way of parenting

My parents set the standards for academic excellence exceedingly high, and any failure or shortcoming brought family shame. Ensuring that my brothers and I had a happy childhood was more of an afterthought. Now, ironically, I'm an American expat in a new environment, navigating and exploring parenthood in new ways.

Raised on equal parts Catholic guilt and immigrant work ethic, the Dutch approach seemed too easy-going, self-centered and lazy to me. They had midwife-assisted births (ideally at home and non-medicated) and didn't send their kids to music lessons or any academic-enriched programs. What was wrong with them?

Dutch parents are among the happiest people in the world

But a year into motherhood, I stumbled upon a 2013 UNICEF report claiming that Dutch children were the happiest kids in the world. The report was a follow-up to one conducted in 2007, in which the Netherlands was first named as a prime example of childhood prosperity. The U.K. and the U.S. ranked in the two lowest positions.

A handful of other organizations, including Britain's Child Poverty Action Group and the World Economic Forum, have also ranked Dutch kids incredibly high in personal happiness.

So how exactly do Dutch parents raise the happiest kids in the world? As a seasoned expat mom living in stereotypical Dutch suburbia (I also wrote a book about Dutch parenting with my co-author Michele Hutchison), it isn't hard for me to indulge in the six secrets as to why kids here are the happiest:

1. Babies get plenty of sleep

In 2013, a study from the European Journal of Developmental Psychology examined the temperamental differences between U.S. and Dutch babies. "Dutch babies laugh, smile and like to cuddle more than their American counterparts," the researchers concluded.

According to the study, Dutch infants' relatively calm demeanor were due in part to a more regulated sleep schedule and lower intensity activities. American parents are known to emphasize the importance of stimulation, exposing their children to a wide variety of new experiences.

Dutch parents, on the other hand, focus on daily activities at home, placing value on the importance of rest and regularity. Parents are uncompromising about the sanctity of sleep. Well-rested babies allow for well-rested parents. Research has declared that the Dutch, on average, get more sleep than any anyone else in the world: A total of eight hours and 12 minutes each night.

2. Kids spend more time with both parents

In 1996, the Dutch government granted part-time employees equal rights as full-timers, paving the way for higher work-life balance. The culture of part-time work is another reason why everyone is much happier over here. With 29-hour work weeks, the Netherlands has the world's shortest week for business professionals, according to a 2018 OECD study.

Nearly half of the Dutch adult population works part-time, with 26.8% of men working less than the maximum 36 hours a week and 75% of women working part-time — and this is across all sectors, from unskilled laborers to professionals.

Like their female counterparts, most Dutch dads squeeze their full-time work hours into just four days. It allows them to dedicate at least one day per week to spend time with their kids. This time off is frequently referred to as "Papadag," which essentially means "Daddy Day."

3. Kids feel less pressure to excel in school

Of all the parenting decisions we have to make, choosing a school seems to be one of the most fundamental. But in the Netherlands, it isn't all about high GPAs and elite universities. Education is seen as the route to a child's well-being and personal development.

There are two kinds of Dutch higher education qualifications: Research-oriented degrees offered by universities and profession-orientated degrees offered by colleges. You don't need any specific grades to gain admission to most programs — all you need is to pass your high school exams.

"Schools here invest more energy in motivation than in achievement," Ruut Veenhoven, a professor of happiness at the Erasmus University, Rotterdam, ells me. "Achievement is what French and English schools focus on, but our research has shown that social skills are instrumental to happiness. They are much more important than a person's IQ."

4. Kids are encouraged to express their own opinions

Everyone in the family, including the youngest, has a say. By the time Julius turned three, he had already developed adequate language skills to express what's important to him. After that, it was all about teaching him how to formulate rational solutions.

Negotiation-based parenting isn't for the faint of heart. It can be exhausting, and your patience will be tested. But by allowing our toddler to negotiate, we were teaching him how to set his own boundaries. The notion was that each time Julius questioned our authority, he was simply trying to express what he was and wasn't comfortable with.

It's a skill that will be useful when he's older, whether it's to resist succumbing to peer pressure, to cope when he finds himself in a possibly dangerous situation or to assert himself at work.

Of course, there are rules. As parents, it's important that we explain our position clearly and let him know, for example, why he needs to sleep early: "So you can get plenty of rest and grow up strong and tall like everyone else."

5. Kids eat "hagelslag" (chocolate sprinkles) for breakfast

Chocolate sprinkles every morning? I can already hear the gasps of disapproval. But hear me out. There's a deeper meaning behind the chocolate sprinkles.

Sitting down at the table as a family, especially before the day begins, is a routine that essentially defines Dutch family life. Before any meal, the family doesn't start eating until everyone, children included, is at the table. It's a sign of respect. Every person counts.

According to the UNICEF report, 85% of Dutch children (between ages 11 and 15) who were surveyed said they eat breakfast with their families every day. Not only is eating breakfast associated with better performance in school and decreased behavioral problems, but research has also found that it encourages family bonding and fosters healthy identity development.

6. Kids are encouraged to bike

The Dutch aren't big on cars. Because of the flat terrain and network of bicycle paths, biking is the most practical and efficient way to travel. I am definitely a proud "bakfiets moeder," the Dutch equivalent of an American parent with a minivan.

It rains a lot in the Netherlands. Winter temperatures average between 35 and 40 degrees Fahrenheit, and there are strong winds. Although wind and rain often make conditions uncomfortable for cyclists, the Dutch simply dress themselves and their children in warm clothes, waterproof coats and rain boots.

All-weather biking is truly a character-forming experience. Children are encouraged to bike everywhere and in all weathers because it teaches them grit. They learn that life isn't always sunny and full of rainbows. They learn to face the rain. They learn not to give up.

I think that's what "Tiger Mom" Amy Chua wanted her children to learn when she insisted that they practice their instruments for hours a day. Cycling to school — whatever the weather conditions — teaches children resilience, and there is a definite link between resilience and happiness.

The Dutch meaning of success

Like all parents around the world, the Dutch have high ambitions for their children. While our parenting styles may be different, we see happiness as a means to success, as opposed to success as a means to happiness.

Happiness is considered as the gateway to self-awareness, intrinsic motivation, independence, positive ties with their communities — and it's what we believe cultivates success.

Rina Mae Acosta is a writer and founder of the parenting blog Finding Dutchland. She is also the co-author of "The Happiest Kids in the World: How Dutch Parents Help Their Kids (and Themselves) by Doing Less." Rina holds a B.S. in Molecular Environmental Biology from The University of California, Berkeley and a M.S. in Health Economics at Erasmus University, Rotterdam. She currently lives in the Netherlands with her husband and three kids.

Like this story? Subscribe to CNBC Make It on YouTube!

Don't miss:

Why Finland and Denmark are the happiest countries in the world
Why Finland and Denmark are the happiest countries in the world