Residents of Denmark continue to rank as the happiest people in the world – why? What makes Danes so well adjusted compared to the rest of us? I interviewed Jessica Joelle Alexander, the author of The Danish Way of Parenting, which looks at the Danes’ use of respect, empathy, reframing and authenticity to foster trust and eliminate power struggles.
Jessica Joelle Alexander is a bestselling author, Danish parenting expert, columnist, speaker, and cultural researcher. Her book, The Danish Way of Parenting: What the Happiest People in the World Know about Raising Confident, Capable kids, is being released in 19 countries in 15 languages.
Jessica is passionate about cultural differences, speaks four languages and lives in Europe with her Danish husband and two children.
Jessica will be discussing her book at the Scandinavian Cultural Center on Monday, August 22 at 7pm. It’s free and open to all ages.
Les Petits Gazette: What was your inspiration for writing The Danish Way of Parenting?
Jessica Joelle Alexander: I had always marveled at how well behaved Danish children were, long before I had my own kids. There was no yelling and they seemed so kind and calm and happy. Then I got pregnant and was put on bed rest for 5 months and read every book I could on parenting. When my daughter was born, however, I found myself preferring my Danish family and friend’s advice over all the books I had read. Then one day I was listening to my husband alter our daughter’s language around her fear of spiders to become more open and curious and less afraid and this was such a “Danish thing”. My husband did it all the time and I understood he was going to pass this ability to “reframe language” onto our daughter, which would change her whole outlook on life to be more positive. At the same time, I was reading the newspaper and the Danes were voted as the happiest people in the world again and that is when it just clicked. I realized there was a Danish Way of Parenting and it must be one of the main reasons they are so happy. Happy kids grow up to be happy adults who raise happy kids and so on. A year later the book was born.
I believe that teaching my boys empathy is one of the most important jobs I have as a parent. I also believe that in our culture, there is less emphasis on empathy than perhaps there should be. I’ve heard several stories lately in the media about a focus on teaching empathy as a way to raise happier and healthier children. Do you think that ultimately, empathy is making a comeback in American society?
Yes! And I am so excited about it. I write about empathy a lot because I have seen first-hand how teaching empathy in Denmark makes a huge difference in children and adults. It is incredible what implementing empathy can do. I don’t think any of us ever realized that empathy is actually a skill that needs to be taught. We took it for granted that it was an innate ability and it is-we are all wired for empathy-but we actually have to learn to hook up the wires to make it work. It’s so exciting because it only takes us truly realizing that it needs to be taught (and learned) to take it more seriously. I think implementing more empathy can completely change our culture and our happiness levels.
In a culture that places such emphasis on “winning” and being “the best” a parent who is new to the Danish way might find Danish ideas about praise counter-intuitive. Can you briefly explain “authentic praise”?
Authentic praise is just that. Keeping it real. It’s more acknowledging a child’s work rather than telling them “you are the best!” or “you are a great artist!” Danes would rather ask a child about what they were thinking when they drew the picture or why they used the colors or what it is? They may just say thank you. They don’t want kids to feel evaluated for everything they do but to encourage them to enjoy the effort for themselves (not to be the best or win praise). Children can’t make sense of empty praise (i.e. you are awesome! for scribbling a picture or tying their shoes) and a lot of research out now is talking about this. Our language becomes such a habit so I have to work all the time on the way I respond to my kids. The Danish way of parenting philosophy that I always remind myself of is kids need to feel loved even when they aren’t performing. So by not “judging” what they do, or “evaluating” their work all the time, they know they are loved for who they are, not for what they are able to do. I think this is pretty profound and makes a big difference in a child’s self-esteem.
It’s difficult as a parent to watch your child deal with conflict while they interact with another child, even though we know that children learn better from experiencing and working through uncomfortable situations on their own. But allowing your child to conflict with another child in public might be met with judgement from other parents. How do we ignore the judgement and listen to our natural maternal or paternal instincts?
I think we are constantly feeling the pressure of judgment from others and it is one of the greatest, and most important obstacles to overcome. A lot of judgment comes from fear. Every parent wants to do things “the right way” so when parents see other parents doing things differently from them, it challenges their own beliefs and makes them insecure. But if we can just believe in our own “big lines” of parenting then we automatically care less what others think. Ultimately, judgment has nothing to do with you. What matters is that you believe in what you are doing with your child. That you are following through with the right way for you and your family.
I can honestly say that becoming a parent and learning about the Danish way has really built up my own self-esteem as a person/parent precisely because I believe in it’s effectiveness for raising competent, well adjusted kids. I am a lot more impervious to what other people think or judge me for because I am confident in those big lines of parenting with my husband.
What was one of the first differences you noticed about Danish parenting?
Actively teaching empathy in Denmark. The fact that spanking is illegal and has been for over 20 years. Free play being such a big deal and taken so seriously in Denmark. Reading stories that encompass all kinds of scenarios and emotions with kids. Danes have a very honest and direct relationship to life that was shocking for me at first, but then I studied the phenomenon and learned that kids really thrive from this authentic approach. Also, children (and having children) are incredibly respected by the entire society. This makes a huge difference for parents.
And you are currently living in Rome. What has been the most surprising parenting style difference you’ve experienced in Italy?
Language. It has been fascinating to see how our language shapes everything. The words and labels we use for children are so powerful. It was precisely being in Italy that made the light bulb go off in my head as to how differently every culture raises their kids and how they all believe so deeply that their way is “the right way”. It’s where I became a believer in the Danish way. Italians are quite physical with their kids, and use a word called “furbo” a lot, which means sly. It is both a positive and a negative word and it sends such a strange message to kids. If you are “furbo” you are naughty (negative) but you are also sly/clever (positive) because you got away with something. Italy scores high in corruption as a country, and I truly believe that the word furbo has something to do with this. Kids are raised to believe that being naughty or cunning is actually smart and clever. If you follow all the rules in Italy you are kind of stupid. So you have to learn to be “furbo”.
The Danes focus a lot on empathy and teaching honesty and being an authentic, trusting and trustworthy person in society. They also use the word “hygge” a lot, which means cozy times with loved ones. Not surprisingly, Denmark is voted as one of the most honest, transparent and peaceful countries in the world. In America, we like to be a winner or the star. Research shows that America is one of the most individualistic countries in the world and this fascination with being the best or standing out (and the language of praise) contributes to this. So just looking to language use in different countries, the vocabulary around parenting, can give great insights into some of the differences in parenting and culture.
What would you say to a parent who thinks she/ he has missed their opportunity to adopt the Danish way of parenting with a teen child?
That’s tough. The Danish psychologist Jesper Juul says that when your kids become teens you can sit back and put your feet up and just enjoy the work you have done. Teens are programmed to separate from their parents so respecting their personal integrity and being a lighthouse so to speak, rather than a warden is the more Danish approach. But all of the same principals from the book apply to teens-from play to hygge- they are just used for older kids.
What is the one thing you would you like the reader to take away after reading your book?
Honestly, I think if people can take away even one aspect of the Danish parenting philosophy, they will see results. Whether it is hygge, empathy, reframing or authenticity, a lot of these tenants improve us as people, not just as parents. Many critics have said that this isn’t just a parenting book. And I can speak for myself that I am a better person because of it.
Growing up in the USA, did your own parents have a typically North American parenting style?
My parents were quite strict and authoritarian. There was a big focus on performing and academics. Of course, America has many parenting styles because it is a huge country, thus it is difficult to say it was typical. However, I think many kids are raised with more authoritarian style households and performing or getting good grades is quite a standard expectation. This was what started the first discussions with my Danish husband well before we had kids. We were raised so completely differently that it was in these discussions I began to see the Danish Way so clearly.
Discussions about parenting styles can get really heated. Were you apprehensive about bringing the Danish Way of Parenting to North American audiences?
No. I was excited. It has changed my life so profoundly I knew it would help others. The fact that Denmark has been voted as the happiest people in the world for 40 years in a row is proof we can’t ignore. And like I said, it worked so well for me so I couldn’t wait to share what I had learned.
What was the toughest part of the writing process?
Keeping track of all the studies and the notes in an organized fashion. There are so many supporting studies (both in Danish and English) and it was a huge job to insert them correctly in the notes section in the end. In my next book I will make sure they get inserted as I go!
Are there other parenting books that have influenced you as a parent?
I really like Positive Parenting by Rebecca Eanes and her Facebook page Positive Parenting Toddlers and Beyond is great for inspiration. She is very in line with the Danish Way approach. Jesper Juul and Helle Jensen are huge Danish inspirations for me. They were the forerunner of Danish Parenting philosophy and Helle works a lot with empathy and mindfulness in Denmark.
Jessica Joelle Alexander will be discussing her book at the Scandinavian Cultural Center in Boston on Monday, August 22 at 7pm. It’s free and open to all ages. Hope to see you there!