Today I’m sharing the key takeaways from “The Danish Way of Parenting” in an effort to read all the parenting books so you don’t have to. As I’ve been researching how to raise kids with high emotional intelligence, these strategies ring especially true. While not framed from an EI perspective in this book, a lot of the principles are the same. This post contains affiliate links.
Did you know the Danes have been rated the happiest people in the world by the Organization For Economic Cooperation and Development for almost THREE decades? Jessica Alexander thought there must be something to that.
“The Danish Way of Parenting” details the findings of this American woman married to a Dane. She concluded that if they are the happiest people, they must be doing something different int he way they raise their children. Was their parenting leading to happier and more resilient adults?
The book is less technical and analytical than many of my parenting favorites but it is practical and easy to apply. It appears as a collection of her insights into the Danish people and highlights six parenting principles which conveniently spell “PARENT.”
Play: unstructured, creative play is essential
Danish parents give their children lots of time to play freely. School ends by 2 pm and preschools center around unstructured playtime. Kids are not scheduled into many parent-directed activities but instead encouraged to get outside.
Studies have shown that open-ended child-led play is what builds the structure of children’s brains. Imagine structured activities (like reading lessons or math tutors at age three) as filling up those brains. A better choice, the Danes and science would argue, is spending the time allowing the framework of the brain to develop (along with children’s self-esteem and resilience), through unstructured play.
Research shows that free play, alone or with friends, teaches kids to be less anxious and more resilient, and it improves social skills.
- schedule less – don’t feel bad about having lots of open “play” time in your child’s schedule
- pay attention to the toys you purchase – pick ones that encourage child-led, creative play (toys that don’t have a “right” way to play with them). Our favorites are Magna-Tiles and duplos (and go figure, Lego is a Danish brand).
- consider play dates where children get to interact and learn from each other instead of a teacher and also carve out time for your child to play alone
Authenticity: being honest and ourselves
Danish parents don’t shelter their children from the range of human emotions and experiences. Did you know many favorite Disney stories are adapted from the Danish Author, Hans Christian Anderson. Although, in the original account of the Little Mermaid, the girl had
- Teach kids about all their emotions.
- Don’t shy away from negative emotions.
- Use process praise, praising kids for their effort instead of their innate ability. For example “You worked really hard at building that tower!” instead of “You’re so good at building towers!”
- Read more – reading and discussing gives children the vocabulary to talk about and understand their lives and emotions.
Consider praising less and engaging more. When your child brings you a picture they colored instead of saying “Oh it is so beautiful – I LOVE IT!” try, “What did you draw here? What colors did you use? Why did you use those colors? How do you feel about it?” This interest and attention to their work will feel like praise but will help them recognize the value of real praise and not be reliant on congratulations to feel good about their own effort.
Reframing: finding the bright side of things
Reframing is the new way of saying “look on the bright side.” Instead of harping on always being happy, being able to reframe a situation gives a person the ability to look for the good, give the benefit of the doubt, and focus on what you can control instead of what you can’t. The result is calmer, more self-regulated, happier humans.
What really hit home for me in this section is the power of my example as a parent. A lot of these skills we want our kids to develop can be best taught by us living them each day.
- Develop the habit of finding the positive parts of a situation or story.
- Help children focus on what they can do or change instead of what they can’t. I like this a lot when kids aren’t getting along. Instead of taking sides or doling out blame, ask each what they have control over and what they can do.
- Avoid definitive and limiting language like “I love this,” “I have that,” “I never,” “or “I always.”
- Similar to limiting language, use positive words when talking about a problem, especially about your child. Instead of “You are being mean today,” try “You are still working on being kind.” This reminds me a lot of the growth mindset and is a practical way to implement it in your family. Apply this to friends as well. Instead of “Billy is a mean kid,” you could talk about what might have made Billy misbehave today. “Billy is still learning how to be kind all of the time. Sometimes we have a hard time being kind, too. When someone isn’t playing kindly, you can ask them to stop or go play somewhere else.” We aren’t labeling the offending child as bad (which teaches our children they aren’t defined by their mistakes) but we also give them tools to handle the situation.
Empathy: showing kindness to teach kindness
Teaching kids about empathy can start early by the conversations we have with our kids. In Danish parenting, they work to have their kids respect and understand other people.
We all want to raise children who show compassion for themselves and for others. In Danish parenting, this is all about teaching kids to respect and try to really understand people. “A good way of practicing empathy is to talk about facial expressions. Show them different images of someone who is sad, angry, happy, nervous and shy, and ask your child why they think the person is feeling that way,” says Iben.
- Ask children about facial expressions. Show them pictures of someone who is happy, angry, sad, shy, upset, and ask your child why they think the person is feeling that way.
- When someone behaves a certain why, ask your child why they think the other person did that. What could be their reasoning?
- Try talking about emotions without judging the emotion. “Why do you think that woman was angry?” instead of “That woman shouldn’t have been angry.”
This is more about the manner in which you set rules, rather than the rules themselves. Instead of “COME HERE RIGHT THIS MINUTE OR YOU’RE GOING TO YOUR ROOM!” the Danes would suggest a calmer approach of explaining what you need them to do (and usually why) in an even voice.
I loved the idea of giving yourself a parent time out when you start to feel yourself lose control. I few times I’ve told my kids I am going to my room for two minutes and I’ll just sit on my bed, with the door closed, and let myself calm down before facing whatever disaster is brewing. I don’t always do this, but it’s almost always worth the more leveled response I’m able to give my kids.
A quote/principle I liked:
“If you are calm, they will be calm. You must guide your child through tantrums without having a tantrum yourself, as the adult. If your little one is throwing a fit, saying, “I can see that you’re very upset. When you feel calm, it’s much easier to talk. Come to Mommy when you’re ready,” This recognizes their emotions but also sets a boundary.”
- Understand that testing rules and boundaries is a natural and healthy part of growing up. When kids misbehave, use it as an opportunity to teach, guide, and nurture instead of punish.
- Use reflective listening to show your kids you hear and understand them. Repeat back to them what they say to show you understand. “You want to have more cookies right now. You’re sad that they are all gone.”
- Try to find “win/win,” rather than “I win,” solutions: “Tomorrow, we’ll start playing the game a little earlier, so can play a little longer before bedtime.”
I’m still not entirely sure how to pronounce the Danish word “hygge,” but I love the concept of getting cozy as a family. Light a fire, pull out the blankets and spend the the afternoon without tech playing games. It is just a fun word for spending time together as a family in a low-key way. Usually, for the Danes, it involves candlelight and I think it should involve baked goods. But spending quality time together, free of distractions, bonds you together as a family and builds a foundation for comfortable, lifelong relationships.
We’ve been adding in some hygge after school each day with “family snuggle.” The first thing we do (once shoes are off and backpacks are in the kitchen) is climb into Mom and Dad’s bed and just snuggle. Sometimes the kids will talk about their days. Sometimes we just giggle with baby Westley. At some point in the snuggle we see if all four of us can be touching all four (each person having an arm, leg, or side touching each other person in the bed – who knows why, but the kids love it). It lasts 3-8 minutes and then the kids are off for naps or quiet time.
- Turn off the TV and put on sweatpants for a cozy morning, afternoon, or evening in.
For more of my favorite parenting books, check out these posts:
- My favorite parenting books
- How Not To Hate Your Husband After Kids summary + takeaways
- Toddler Parenting Things We’re Working on Right Now
If you’re embracing the Danish way of parenting but still looking for some support, you can find a math tutor here with a first lesson free.