Why Are Dutch Children The Happiest In The World?

 

amsterdam

We’ve been in Amsterdam for just over two months now and I’m just starting to scratch beneath the surface of the city. I know the tourist traps and when to avoid them, I can recommend at least one coffee shop (both kinds), I know a good place to get pancakes and have a favourite spot in the Vondelpark. When we returned after Christmas we really felt like residents rather than tourists. I’m trying to take in as much as a I can as before you know it we’ll be back in London.

So what have I learnt? I’ve learnt that Dutch people are open, frank and friendly. They have fewer inhibitions than British people and their entire philosophy seems to be: “live and let live.” As part of our honeymoon last year we travelled coast-to-coast across America, a country which prides itself on being free and liberal. In America you are free to do what you want, within the confines of the law, even if it’s detrimental to other people’s quality of life e.g. exploit workers, avoid tax, pollute the atmosphere with some gas guzzling machine, charge people extortionate amounts of rent for a shitty property etc…

In the Netherlands you’re at liberty to do what you want as long you pay into the society and take care of people. So yes, you can run a business and earn as much money as you want as long as you’re happy to pay the high rates of tax and offer good working conditions. You can be a landlord but there are rent caps, you can build houses or swanky apartments but 30% of all new builds have to be made available as social housing. You can own a car but you don’t have priority on the roads. You come fourth after bicycles, pedestrians and trams. This is a country designed to make life for its citizens as easy and enjoyable as possible. Their laws and regulations are based on an belief that people are entitled to a sufficient income to satisfy their basic needs and should not be at the mercy of charity. And it’s working: The Netherlands consistently ranks as one of the best places in the world to live and, according to Unicef, Dutch children are among the happiest in the world. Here’s why:

Their parents are happy

For all their liberal attitudes to sex and drugs, the Dutch are small ‘c’ conservative in their approach to raising a family. As parents you are expected to spend time as a family doing nice things with your children. You are not expected to spend 50+ hours of your week working. Unlike in the UK where we wear our stress levels and packed schedules like badges of honour, here over 50% of the country work part time. Over 50%. Legislation was even introduced in 2000 that gave men and women the right to ask their employer for part time work.  This explains why the average working week is only 29 hours.

Admittedly there is a gender gap with over 75% of women working part time – compared to only 27% of men. The reasons for this are historic – the Dutch remained neutral throughout WW1 and didn’t enter WW2 until its occupation in 1940 so there wasn’t the drain of men from the workforce that required women to take up jobs. Consequently women didn’t enter work in The Netherlands until much later than in Britain – sometime around the late 60s.

Households can afford run on either one full time income or two part-time incomes – an option many take. Even though it is more likely to be the man that works full time, 23% of fathers take “papadag” leave each week. “Papadag” literally translates as, “Daddy Day.” In the Netherlands all fathers are entitled to a weekday off EVERY WEEK to spend time with their children. Every week. Arguably it isn’t just the fact fathers are free to take a day to spend with their children that makes the difference – it’s the fact that it has been made a social norm. Fathers are expected to be active in their children’s lives.

children-dad

2. There’s more to life than academic achievement 

Children start school at 4 or 5 – but don’t start formal reading and writing until 7. Instead, in the first few years, schools focus entirely on social skills, gross and fine motor skills and learning through play. Homework isn’t common for children under the age of 10 – all the more time to be playing outside. Formal testing doesn’t take place until the age of 12 when they take the CITO tests the results of which are treated only as a suggestion to the sort of route a child might want to take next. Ultimately the decision as to what sort of secondary education they’ll pursue lies with the child and their parents.

The main difference here is that academic achievement is not the be all and end all. Professor Volleburgh of Utrecht University sums it up quite nicely, “The Netherlands has a social culture, with open and safe relationships between parents and their children and the same applies to the relationships the children have with each other. The pressure to perform is not as high here.”

In the next few weeks I’m hoping to visit a few of the local schools to see what all this looks in practice – watch this space.

3. They’re Active

Wchildren-cyclehether it’s tearing around the Vondelpark on their bikes, or skating on one of the numerous outdoor ice rinks – Dutch children are very active. This is unsurprising as research by the British Heart Foundation found adults in the Netherlands to be some of the most active in Europe. The same research found that 80% of children in the Netherlands participate in more than two hours of vigorous exercise a week, compared to just 49% of British children. The main reason for this is that everybody cycles. It’s the easiest, cheapest and quickest way to travel and is incredibly safe. Secondly, children are outdoors all the time. Come rain or shine Dutch children are outside, swimming and playing – often unsupervised. Whilst family time is important to the Dutch, the children here are incredibly independent: primary school children cycle to school themselves and take themselves off to their friends’ houses in the evening. Not a helicopter parent or tiger Mum in sight.

 


Of course this could all be rubbish. I reckon the real reason that Dutch children are the happiest in the world is because they get to eat Hagelslag every morning. Hagelslag are chocolate sprinkles which are typically served on a hot, buttered toast – who wouldn’t be happy starting their day like that?

choc

The Art of Travel

the art of travel

There have been many profound and inspiring things written about the importance of travel. From Samuel Johnson: “The use of travelling is to regulate imagination with reality, and instead of thinking of how things may be, see them as they are.” to my heroine (and one true love) Elizabeth Gilbert: “To travel is worth any cost or sacrifice.” It is a subject that provokes a response in all of us whether we’re fans of the “staycation”, weekend city breaks or trekking through the Amazon; taking time out of our lives, away from work leaves us able to reflect, recharge and other beneficial things that start with “re”.

I like to think I’m a decent travelling companion – over the years I have shared laughter, food and many, many books with my fellow travellers. I also hope that I am humble and down to earth as there is nothing more unbearable than travelling with someone who has developed the dreaded “Traveller Ego” – you know the type: they’ve seen it all, done it all and say things like “You haven’t LIVED until you’ve been to this cafe run by nuns in South Bulgaria”. I don’t say those sorts of things. I present to you: five things you’ll hear when travelling with me. It’s unlikely they’ll ever be quoted or written on one of those memes your Mum’s friend Linda likes to put on her Facebook page but that’s probably OK.

  1. “I’ll pick some up once I get there.”

My mother is a planned packer – she makes lists, then more lists and then spends the week before the trip purchasing and washing the things she needs. It makes sense really. I only realised recently I am almost the exact opposite of this. I think packing light was enforced on me by my many years of relying on budget airlines to get anywhere. After being faced with a smug airline attendant watch me frantically putting on all the clothes in my carry on case in order to board the flight (despite me trying to reason that the clothes themselves weigh the same whether they are in my bag or on my body) I decided that could never happen again. So I learnt the art of packing, what the magazines might call, a “capsule wardrobe” but I call “5 pairs of leggings and lots of t-shirts.” They don’t necessarily create perfectly stylish and coordinated outfits but they keep me comfortable. Obviously there is only so light one can pack for an around-the-world trip and, whilst packing my case last week, I had to make room for clothing that is suitable for Summer in Hawaii and Autumn in New York. In order to do this, I had to sacrifice other essentials that you might expect to find in my case like plug adapters and sun cream. It’s fine, I’ll pick some up once we get there. Globalisation has created a world that is less foreign. Costa Coffee in Moscow, KFC in Bangkok. Most of the thing you will need to make travelling through a country comfortable, will be available in that country.

  1. “I’ll have the cheese burger”

Don’t get me wrong – my main reason for going to any country is the food. I’m already planning what to have on my pizza in Chicago and I’m even considering breaking my “no ducks, rabbits or lambs” rule so I can have the Beijing specialty: peking duck. I very rarely turn down the chance to try a new cuisine. I’ve eaten crickets in Bangkok, borscht in Moscow, intestines in Rome and ostrich in Marrakesh. I’m not fussy, I’ll pretty much eat whatever I’m given – apart from marzipan – because marzipan is an abomination. However, I don’t insist on always eating the local cuisine if I don’t want to. When I’m at home I don’t only eat roast beef, cheese ploughman’s and fish and chip, as amazing as that would be. I eat a mix of home cooked meals, Italian food, Mexican, Thai etc… so why would my tastes be different in another country? I would be sad for anyone who went abroad and didn’t try the local cuisine at least once because you might find something you love but it is also your holiday, your break – eat what you enjoy. Which is why on the first day of our honeymoon, in Paris, I ordered a cheeseburger (with ketchup.) Sorry Paris.

cheeseburger

  1. “Let’s not do anything today”

This is an important one. There’s an overwhelming pressure when you are abroad to always be doing something: to go on an excursion every day or take in a new sight, the only exception is perhaps a beach holiday. In London I make sure that at least once a month I keep a weekend completely free to do very little and it’s exactly the same when I’m away. I decided the things I really want to see and do and make sure I fit them in but in between if I spend an afternoon/entire day reading in a park, or drinking beer and playing cards in a bar – that’s fine. I am writing this on the train from St. Petersburg to Moscow. The rain is hammering at the windows. I don’t write that to paint romantic picture – it is literally pouring – it sounds as if the train is being pelted with gravel. It has done this for hours and by all accounts is going to continue well into tomorrow. Which means for next 24 hours we will be playing cards and reading in cafes or maybe taking advantage of the hotel wifi and catching up with some blogging.* Of course we’ll see Red Square and the Kremlin and eat in a few local restaurants before we leave but there’s no pressure to spend every day “doing the stuff.” I need at least a day in the week where I don’t have to be up to catch a coach or train or queue for an attraction.

*UPDATE: What we actually did was have a long lunch in a local restaurant that turned into a long afternoon of drinking vodka. Sometimes it’s OK to spend the afternoon drinking vodka and talking shit with your husband rather than traipsing round in the rain trying to follow an, increasingly soggy, map from your Rough Guide. It might even be considered more Russian. Possibly.

Vodka

 

  1. “I’m happy to miss that”

Florence

Florence is one of my favourite cities that I’ve ever been too. It is just so incredibly beautiful. Everything about it: the buildings, the parks and the food is a joy to behold. However, and I’m almost embarrassed to admit this, whilst in the home of the Renaissance I didn’t go to a single art gallery. I didn’t get to The Accademia or the Uffizi. Why? Because it was August and it was at least a 2-hour queue to get in, and in 30 degree heat I’d rather spend 2 hours walking around, eating gelato or doing pretty much anything other than queuing. Which is know is terribly un-British – queues are our best thing after all. On that same trip I did queue for 45 minutes for a pizza but it was bloody amazing pizza – it’s all about deciding what your priorities are. My best friend Lizzie shares my love of Florence firstly because of the food but also for the art which, for her, was a huge part of why she loved it and so it was important that she took the time to go and see those things. The point is neither way is the “correct way” of seeing Florence because there is no “correct way” to see Florence; the only thing that matters is that you enjoy your visit. Don’t worry about what you think you’re meant to see – your experience of a country or city is no less valid simply because you didn’t visit a particular building, statue or beach.

  1. “What’s that?”

The reason I am lost more often than I’m found whilst abroad is because, even if I manage to fathom out where I am on a map and by some miracle am able plot a route to where I want to go I, often get distracted. Something will catch my eye; it could be anything from a beautiful building to a cat (it’s often a cat) but somehow I end up straying from my carefully mapped out path. Occasionally this leads to me getting myself so lost I have to resign myself to not finding my way back and end up spending more money than I have to get a taxi back to wherever I’m staying but most of the time it leads to discovering something I may never have found otherwise: a quiet, shady garden, a beautiful fountain or an excellent place to eat pancakes. Don’t worry about just wandering. Once you’ve removed the pressure of having to see everything you are free to walk at leisure and take in your new surroundings. Although if like me you really struggle with reading maps travel with a patient friend who will do it for you.

“So I’m in my map…”

I would like to point out at this point that I’m not a complete philistine or even particularly disorganised. All my adventures have a planned itinerary and a spreadsheet of costs – which is perhaps slightly extreme. However once I’m away the planning stops and I don’t put pressure on my travels to be any particular sort of experience other than what I want them to be. Ultimately all that I urge is that whenever you go away, whether it’s for a day, a weekend or longer you do it the way you want to do it. Oh and order the cheeseburger. With ketchup.

 

Off Track

train tracks

Happiness is the consequence of personal effort. You fight for it, strive for it, insist upon it, and sometimes even travel around the world looking for it. You have to participate relentlessly in the manifestation of your own blessing. And  once you have achieved a state of happiness, you must never become lax about maintaining it. You must make a mighty effort to keep swimming upward into that happiness forever, to stay afloat on top of it.”  

Elizabeth Gilbert

It’s been nearly three weeks since my last post. In that time there have been several legal challenges made against the Labour Party by erm, the Labour Party, the Conservatives have announced that they are planning to build more Grammar Schools (shock), Donald Trump continues to insult and abuse everyone he meets: from the parents of a dead soldier, to a crying baby and Nigel Farage has grown a moustache, one assumes in an attempt to look more statesman/German porn star-like. Lack of inspiration is not my excuse for not writing it is just, for once, I have been somewhat distracted by some more uplifting news: Tim and I got married last week. It was a beautiful day filled with the most incredible people. I won’t bore you with the lovely details – I’ll just leave a few of our photos here:

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I should just mention our wonderful photographers Neil and Lisa who are responsible for these beautiful pictures – not just because I know they read this blog!

Last week was also significant for a second reason. We finally activated what we refer to as: The Plan (capital T capital P.)
The Plan

Tim and I have made no secret that we were really struggling with the state of the education system. Earlier this year we both publicly resigned and we’ve documented our ongoing frustrations on our blogs. If I’m honest the decision to leave teaching has been made for a while. Our head teachers knew long before our public resignations and our friends and family long before that. In fact, the moment that exit poll flashed up on the screen on May 7th 2015 we knew it wasn’t a matter of IF we’d leave the profession, just a matter of when and, more importantly, how. Neither of us has ever done anything else; we’d both imagined we’d stay in teaching until we retired.

But handing in our resignations in January filled us with a sense of optimism and hope that we hadn’t felt for long time. We were young(ish), educated and free to choose the direction our life was going to take – we just had to decide what direction that was. It’s the sort of decision most people are faced with when they are 18 and fresh out of school or at 21 as a young graduate. At the age of 11 I knew with such certainty that I wanted to be teacher so I was never confronted with that crossroads. No difficult decisions or soul searching was required, just a few forms to complete to secure my place on the PGCE course. Now here I was at 29, resigning from a successful career that I had, until recently, enjoyed. It was as terrifying as it was exhilarating.

We had three big decisions to make: what our next jobs would be, where we were going to live and, even more importantly, where we were going to go on our honeymoon. What followed was months of discussions and several draft versions of “The Plan.” You name it, we considered it. From buying and renovating a windmill, to buying a plot of land and building an eco-friendly lodge complete with allotment and solar panels to retreating to a cottage in the Hebrides to write stories and make/sell/eat fudge. We researched every career we could possibly do next: from politics, to cheese making, writing, plumbing, developing a scheme that would help Primary school teachers teach politics even foreign currency trading.

“Life is what happens while you’re busy making (lesson) plans.”

All we knew for sure was we wanted to ensure that the next stage of our life had more of a work-life balance than that last. We’ve been good at the work bit but the life bit requires serious improvement. Two teachers/school leaders does not equal a lot of quality time together. It means evenings spent too exhausted to talk or hunched over data or books and weekends spent trying to catch up on sleep – and we haven’t even got children to factor in at this point. It’s not a sustainable model and it’s certainly not a happy one. We’ve both been in the education system since we were four years old. That’s 25 years of the day being structured into hourly lesson slots, set lunch hours, bells ringing to let us know when we can go to the toilet or have a hot drink. What I think we’re both craving more than anything is more autonomy and control over our time.

After much deliberation, discussion and number crunching, we decided we would kick start our married life with a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. Inspired by Phileas Fogg Michael Palin we decided on a round-the-world trip – by train. Which is why I am writing to you from a café in Leningradsky station, Moscow, not from a sofa in Wood Green. We’ve spent the last two days on a sleeper train from London, because nothing says honeymoon like 48 hours confined to a small cabin with an old Russian lady and an unwashed student. Our plan from here, after a few days exploring St. Petersburg, is to take the Tran Siberian Express to Lake Baikal where we’ll hole up in a chalet before continuing to Mongolia to stay in a yurt with a Mongolian tribe and a few goats. Then it’s back on the train all the way to Beijing. After we’ve done London to China by train, it all gets a bit more honeymoon-like. We get on a plane to cross the ocean to Hawaii where we’ll kick back for three weeks before continuing on to San Francisco to do coast-to-coat America on, you guessed it, more trains. All being well, we’ll be back in the UK at the end of October to catch up with our loved ones, wash our clothes and repack in time for our move to Amsterdam in November.

travel-694675_1920

Why Amsterdam? A few factors swung it: we needed to be somewhere accessible that meant we could still get back to London, somewhere we could get by with English whilst we learnt the language (Tim has multiple languages up his sleeve where as I have only a smattering of Italian phrases at my disposal which will only get you so far in Holland.) We ideally wanted somewhere politically left-leaning and we didn’t want to live somewhere that would mean relying on a car. So Amsterdam it is. We’ve got a place for 6 months and we haven’t decided the plan from then on. Tim’s got to be back in London for a short time because he’s starring in a one-man show about education – yes really – more on that another time.

So my posts for the next few weeks may be slightly more sporadic depending on whether I can get access to the internet. For the next few weeks I may even venture away (just slightly) from education and politics at times. That said, we arrive in Washington about three weeks before the Presidential Election so I’m sure I’ll have a word or 1,000 to say about that. The Labour Leadership Election takes place whilst we’re in Hawaii and, whilst it feels wrong to dwell on the dilemmas facing the Labour Party whilst sitting in a tropical paradise, I imagine it won’t be far from our thoughts; it has already dominated our conversation whilst travelling through Belarus yesterday.

 

If you’re interested you’ll find be able to follow our adventures and musings here. Normal service will resume in October  but, for now at least, The Girl on the Piccadilly Line is off track.