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 favorite 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 I can as before you know it we’ll be back in London.

So what have I learned? I’ve learned 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 traveled coast-to-coast across America, a country that 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:

  1. 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.

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

Whether 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?

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