An expert ponders the findings while a Dutch family in Clare say they won’t be heading home any time soon, writes Arlene Harris.

THE stereotypical image of the Netherlands is one of windmills and clogs, tulips and bicycles, and of course liberal lifestyle attitudes.

But the latest official attribute to be added to the Dutch profile is the news that their children are the happiest in the world. 

A Unicef study revealed that youngsters in this small nation are more content than their counterparts in 29 of the world’s richest developed countries and ranked in the top five in each of the categories assessed: Material wellbeing; health and safety; education; behaviours and risks; and housing and environment.

Irish children rated 10th overall and came second in the category of housing and environment, which is undoubtedly a positive result. 

But when it comes to ensuring our children have a carefree childhood, it seems we all need to go Dutch.

According to the latest research, the reasons are straightforward:

* Dutch babies get more sleep

* Children have little or no homework at primary school

* Are not just seen but also heard

* Ride their bikes to school on their own and play outside unsupervised

* Have regular family meals and spend more time with their parents

* Enjoy simple pleasures and are happy with second-hand toys.

Child psychologist Dr David Carey says many of the Dutch methods of child-rearing are indeed conducive to happiness.

“Proper sleep is one of the most important factors in a child’s overall well-being,” he says. 

“A good sleep leaves the brain ready for concentration in the morning so learning becomes less tedious and the child’s emotional life is considerably more stable.”

He also agrees with giving young children little or no homework. 

“It serves no discernible purpose in academic progress and is a source and focus of family distress. 

Irish children are heavily over-programmed with extra-curricular activities so there is little time for free play — also the reliance on technology reduces creative potential.”

But Dutchman Mario De Dapper, who lives in Clare with his wife Patricia and daughter Maxime, 6, believes that Ireland is a great place for children.

“We are pretty surprised to hear about Dutch children being the happiest,” admits the 48–year-old. 

“For sure, certain services are better organised in The Netherlands, such as roads, public transport and health, but hand space is an issue. 

"The standard of living is probably higher, but we prefer raising Maxime here.”

The husband-and-wife team, who run their own company making bespoke glass ornaments for funeral ashes, have found life to be more relaxed in Ireland. 

“In The Netherlands fashion brands are way more important than in Ireland,” says De Dapper.

“Here, the school uniform means every child is the same and the focus is on the child not how rich their parents are.

“The same goes for children being happier with second-hand toys — we believe that the pressure of having the latest new ‘stuff’ is higher over there than it is here.

“Our daughter is very happy — she loves playing with friends in the village, loves the beach and the woods, and has a normal, carefree childhood.”

While De Dapper, who moved here in 2013, agrees with some aspects of the Unicef report, in other areas he finds the opposite to be true.

“We as children only got homework from the age of six and it was built up slowly,” he says. 

“Here in Ireland, the pressure of homework is a bit higher and less of it would probably make Maxime a bit happier, but it is not a determining factor.

“As for children being heard as well as being seen, that might be the case now as children are allowed to express an opinion, but when Patricia and I were growing up, adults decided what was black and white.

“And with regard to children spending more time with their parents, this happens a lot less than it did when we were growing up. Just like in Ireland, nowadays way more parents both work full-time. 

"In fact, it’s our impression that children in The Netherlands are raised more by crèches and childminders than by their parents — so Irish parents score better in this area.”

However, there is no getting away from the fact that Dutch children have more outside play than Irish kids — but this, says De Dapper, is simply down to environmental factors.

“Children in the Netherlands are trusted to cycle by themselves but the roads are wider and everything is ready for bikes,” he says. 

“In Ireland, that culture is different and isn’t in everyone’s nature.

“Unsupervised outside play is also more normal but neighbourhoods are different from Ireland as there is more ‘social control’ from all parents in each area. 

"The dangers are no different than in Ireland, but parents and children deal with it in a different way and it’s not necessarily a measure for happiness. Personally we don’t believe children are any happier over there than they are here.”

Whether Irish or Dutch, David Carey says preparing children for life is the best recipe for happiness.

“Families that eat together, without the TV and radio or phones at the table, learn how to communicate and enjoy the simple pleasure of a meal with loved ones,” he says.

“But giving children the best toys and clothes and the most fashionable of gear is the single best way to raise a child with no ability to cope with stress, anxiety, or life’s disappointments.

“There’s no such thing as a carefree life so teach your children how to cope with disappointment, don’t rescue them from every trouble they encounter. 

"Believe in and encourage their ability to solve problems by themselves and remember — you are there to help, not to do it all for them.”

The rankings

* According to the Unicef study, Dutch children are the happiest out of 29 of the world’s richest countries.

* 95% of children in the Netherlands who were questioned considered themselves happy.

* Their contentment ranked in the top five in each of the categories assessed: Material wellbeing; health and safety; education; behaviours and risks; and housing and environment.

* Irish children were 10th overall and came second in the category of housing and environment.

* The British rated 16th in the survey while the US was 26th, just above Lithuania, Latvia, and Romania — the three poorest countries featured in the study.

* 85% of Dutch children, aged between 11 and 15, eat breakfast every morning.

* Of 26 countries surveyed in an OECD report, Dutch teenagers were the least likely to engage in binge drinking while teens in Britain, Estonia, and Denmark were top of the list.


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