The happiest kids in the world have social safety nets

happy mom pushing toddler on swings

When my sister, her husband and their four-month-old daughter moved from New Jersey to the Netherlands in March of 2022, I wasn’t expecting our family to receive a lesson in Dutch parenting. But, after spending time at their former home on Bloemgracht, a street and canal in the Jordaan neighborhood of Amsterdam, I learned a lot about the Dutch parenting pedagogy: namely, allowing children to be free and independent—even when it means permitting them to bike in the rain. Yet underneath this conscious parenting philosophy, I observed that, while Dutch parenting may indeed be impressive, it’s the Dutch social safety net that permits parents to feel safe and secure enough to allow their children this broad freedom and independence.

Social safety net

Visiting my sister’s 1600s-era apartment one summer, I meet her Dutch neighbors Daan and Annamarie and their two children, Louie, 7, and Morris, 10. As my partner, Mike, and I sit on the bench in front of my sister’s home, we watch as Louie and Morris chase each other up and down the street, barefoot and dodging Bakfiets—the human-powered cargo bike that all the “cool” Dutch parents have—and run back and forth across the bridge over the Bloemgracht canal.

Two weeks later, back home in our apartment in New York City, I tried to imagine the kids in our neighborhood running barefoot across the street, barreling into and out of their neighbors’ homes, feeling free yet secure (and not contracting tetanus). I wanted to know why Dutch children like Louie and Morris are often cited as being the happiest in the world. It struck me that not only are these young kids comfortable roaming around their neighborhood in Amsterdam (the city is on average much safer than New York City), but Dutch children are also conscious—of their surroundings, of other people, and of their environment.

This consciousness is seemingly infused into their every move: The way Dutch children greet adults when they walk into a room (instead of skulking behind their parents like many American children do), or the way they engage with their neighbors of all ages. Dutch kids seem to do so from a place of curiosity, wonder, and responsibility—even from a very young age. Yet, at least according to Daan and Annamarie, Dutch children “aren’t really taught” about being environmentally-conscious or independent—either at home or at school. The children simply model the way their parents and other Dutch people interact with others and their environment; that is, with respect and self-confidence.

This independence and attendant accountability reminded me of the Sámi, a tribe of Northern Scandinavian people who are reindeer herders in the Arctic. Unregimented to a degree that would be unsettling to Americans, even young Sámi children are given a say in what to wear in temperatures of -22F and are permitted to use their own earmarking knives on reindeer calves. In addition to cultivating flexible sleep habits for young children, every parent in the tribe looks out for the safety of every child in the tribe. Frankly, this sounds idyllic.

There has been much written about the way non-American children are raised and the freedom they’re provided versus the intense “helicopter” parenting observed in the United States. But what seems to be frustratingly glossed over in these case studies is the acknowledgment that it is an economic luxury to raise happy, confident kids who pay attention to the environment around them.

Specifically, it takes an infrastructure that supports parents and working people. American parents on both sides of the political spectrum know this and are increasingly frustrated by how little they have been offered in this country—particularly in exchange for the high taxes they pay. When well-meaning authors suggest that parents are doing it better in other countries, it can feel eye roll-worthy at best and condescending at worst. A couple of recent articles come to mind whose biting headlines reflect this exasperation, from Kelsey Osgood’s “Parenting Like The Mayans Isn’t Going To Fix This” in Romper Magazine to Matthias Doepke and Fabrizio Zilibotti’s “Americans Are Often Told to Parent Like Scandinavians. Here’s Why That’s Impossible” in TIME Magazine.

In a country like the Netherlands where parents like my sister receive ample parental leave, childcare stipends, a four-day work week, and universal healthcare, the low-level anxiety that many American parents feel isn’t as common. This is not to mention the lack of safe drinking water and the plague of gun violence that burden and terrorize millions of American parents. I suspect that the laissez-faire approach of Dutch parents—and its ability to inspire independence and profound respect in Dutch children—plainly has less to do with Dutch exceptionalism, and more to do with a robust Dutch social safety net and infrastructure that simply does not exist in the United States.

Parenting in America

Here in New York, when news recently broke of a child who died by opioid exposure while at his daycare in the North Bronx, the borough where my partner Mike teaches at a Title I public school, media coverage of the devastating incident quickly turned to our country’s fentanyl epidemic, the uptick in fatal overdoses, and what must be done to crack down on drugs. I remember bristling at the distinct lack of a national conversation around why this boy’s mother was given the impossible choice of either losing her job or leaving her child at a daycare located a few blocks away from “an open-air drug market…along a trash-strewn underpass.” American parents deserve better than this, and so do their children.

The inexcusable wealth inequality that affords the richest American parents the feeling of safety and security and permits them to parent in a freer, more “Dutch” (or French, or Mayan, or Danish, etc.) way, is simply not available to the poorest American parents. As an example, in the South Bronx neighborhood where Mike teaches, some parents can’t allow their children to go trick-or-treating on Halloween due to the rampant slashings and gang initiations that traditionally occur on that evening. Our country is suffering as a result of this shameful disparity between rich and poor parents. As Megan Erickson, a former New York City public school teacher, posits in her book “Class War: The Privatization of Childhood,” what does America have at stake when some children go to school hungry and others ride in $1,000 strollers? Her answer: a lot.

This is because it is not only the material disadvantages that take such a toll on our nation’s poor—from the lack of access to healthy food to the barriers to college admission—but the fact that many American parents are forced to rear their children in a state of hypervigilance. Operating under chronic stress has real consequences which costs the United States more than $300 billion per year, according to a report by the American Psychological Association. The Brookings Institute has directly linked American poverty to increased pain, worry, sadness, stress, and anger. Parenting is stressful and all-consuming enough without also battling poverty: Without adequate government help, working mothers in particular put in an approximately eighty-hour workweek between waged work and child care, longer than anyone else in the American economy. Just ask American mothers parenting during the pandemic, who were described as being “in crisis.”

At home in Westchester, where Mike and I moved last year due to the exorbitantly high cost of rent in Manhattan, I’m now a parent myself. As a freelance writer in the United States, this means that I’m on unpaid maternity leave while I care for my newborn child. Mike, who is a member of a teachers’ union, receives only six weeks of paid parental leave. For me, there was no kraamzorg, a professional Dutch maternity nurse who comes to a woman’s home to help her for eight days postpartum. And for our family, there will be no low-cost, high-quality childcare or preschool.

I think about the support that Louie and Morris’s parents have in the Netherlands, and whether parents in the United States will ever be the beneficiaries of such basic societal support (I don’t dare dream of a Sámi-like utopia here). To get there, I imagine that we will need to continue organizing in an intersectional manner to demand paid parental leave, safe neighborhoods, and affordable childcare for the benefit of American parents. Only then will American children, too, have an opportunity to be among the happiest, and most independent, in the world.

For further reading


Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting by Pamela Druckerman 

The Happiest Kids in the World: How Dutch Parents Help Their Kids (and Themselves) by Doing Less by Rina Mae Acosta and Michele Hutchison

The Danish Way of Parenting: What the Happiest People in the World Know About Raising Confident, Capable Kids by Jessica Joelle Alexander and Iben Sandahl

Hunt, Gather, Parent: What Ancient Cultures Can Teach Us about the Lost Art of Raising Happy, Helpful Little Humans by Michaeleen Doucleff 

Class War: The Privatization of Childhood by Megan Erickson