Why Danish Parents Are So Much Happier Than The Rest Of Us

Why is Denmark ranked as the happiest place on Earth? Look to the kids.

by Andy Hinds
Originally Published: 
A father pushing his two kids in a cart, surrounded by nature.
Solskin/DigitalVision/Getty Images

Can you really raise happy, well-behaved, resilient, confident children just by consistently rewarding them with delicious pastries? Perhaps, but that’s not what The Danish Way of Parenting is about. Denmark has been ranked happiest in the world by the Organization For Economic Cooperation And Development for nearly three decades running. A people does not achieve that kind of collective bliss from having sh*tty childhoods.

So, how do Danes raise their kids to be so damned happy? For this answer, we can simply turn to the book’s adorable 6-part acronym, “PARENT.”

1. P is for Play

Unstructured Play Is Critical To Childhood Development

Research shows that free play, alone or with friends, teaches kids to be less anxious and more resilient, and it improves social skills. It also makes kids feel like they are in control of their lives, which leads to greater autonomy and self-control as they grow up and a decreased chance of them winding up in your basement. Danes put such a high value on play that early elementary school curriculums are based around it.

What You Can Do With This

  • Make time for play that doesn’t include screens and encourages kids to use all their senses; get them outside, or give them a bunch of art supplies and let them go nuts.
  • Create playgroups for your kids that have kids of different ages so that younger ones can learn how to do things from older ones, and older ones can learn how to boss younger ones around.
  • Make time for play that doesn’t include other kids, so they can process new experiences, like not playing with screens, or getting bossed around by older kids.

2. A Is For Authenticity

Protecting Kids From All Unpleasant Feelings Stunts Their Emotional Growth

Danish kids grow up on the stories of Hans Christian Andersen — like The Little Matchgirl, in which a destitute (but adorable!) little orphan dies, homeless, of hypothermia; or The Little Mermaid, in which said mermaid agrees to have her tongue cut out and suffer the sensation of constantly walking on sharp daggers so she can be human for a guy who dumps her. Danish parents don’t read their kids these stories because they’re horrible. Rather, they know that talking about and exploring all kinds of emotions teaches kids empathy, appreciation, and how to deal with their feelings.

Don’t shrink from difficult topics, like “Wait, she just dies at the end? Why?”

What You Can Do With This

  • Read your kid some HCA, and not the Disney-fied stuff that always has a happy ending. Don’t shrink from difficult topics, like “Wait, she just dies at the end? Why?”
  • Ensure they develop a strong sense of what’s true or false by answering their questions honestly, regardless of how difficult the subject — yes, this means that Grandma didn’t “go away for a long time.” Teach them that honesty is especially valued in your family.

Overpraise Does More Harm Than Good

Research shows that kids who are always told they are smart are likely to give up easily when confronted with difficult tasks. They feel that due to their alleged smartness, they shouldn’t have to work hard — trying hard makes them feel dumb, so they avoid it. The Danes approach praising their kids accordingly.

What You Can Do With This

  • Praise the process and the effort, rather than innate ability — “You studied hard and aced the test,” instead of, “You’re so good at math!”
  • Save it for when it’s warranted and don’t feel the need to dole it out just to make your kid feel better. If they don’t feel great about the outcome of something, help them understand why and encourage them to go about it differently next time.

3. R is for Reframing

Perception Is Everything

Danes are particularly adept at looking on the bright side — instead of complaining about the weather, they’ll be grateful they’re not in the rain while on vacation. This isn’t just disposition (although they are annoyingly cheery); research suggests that deliberately reinterpreting events in a better light improves cognitive control and adaptability. Danes don’t deny negativity, they model “realistic optimism,” and they teach their kids to frame problems accordingly.

What You Can Do With This

  • Recognize when you’re framing situations in a negative way, and reframe them around whatever positive aspect you can find. If that sounds like a workshopped version of “every cloud has a silver lining,” that’s because it is (Denmark’s a cloudy place).
  • Avoid limiting language like “I hate this,” “I love that,” “I always,” or “I never.” Similarly, hyperbole is not helpful to your kid, since they’ll take it at face value even though that donut isn’t really “the greatest thing” you’ve ever eaten.
  • When your kid misbehaves, focus your language around the emotions behind their actions instead of simply calling attention to what they did wrong.

4. E Is For Empathy

The Ability To Recognize And Understand Feelings In Others Is A Skill

Studies suggest that empathy levels in young Americans have dropped nearly 50 percent since the 90s, while narcissism has risen precipitously, which the authors attribute to hyper-competition, the “gospel of greed,” and Ayn Rand (seriously — they really don’t like Ayn Rand). Meanwhile, in Denmark, there are national programs to teach children empathy, and cultural and linguistic practices that encourage emotional intelligence.

What You Can Do With This

  • Practice understanding others instead of judging them and teach your kids to do the same.
  • Help your kids talk about emotions without judgement: “Why do you think that woman was angry?” instead of “That woman shouldn’t have been angry.”

5. N Is For No Ultimatums

Power Struggles Are No-Win Situations For Parents And Kids

Authoritarian-style parenting — the “My way or the highway” approach — results in a cycle of discipline and rebellion, so Danes strive to be authoritative parents instead. They rely on respect and communication to problem solve, rather than win, disputes with their kids.

What You Can Do With This

  • Understand that pushing boundaries and testing rules is part of growing up. When kids misbehave, use it as an opportunity to teach, guide, and nurture rather than punish.
  • Show them you’re listening by repeating what they’ve said (even if that’s just a preface to saying no): “You really want to play with the iPad right now, but it’s time for bed.”
  • 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.”

6. T Is For Togetherness

Cozy Around Together

“At hygge sig,” or simply “hygge” (pronounced “hooga”) is Danish for “cozying around together” and refers to their custom of basically hanging around together as a family. Traditionally, it involves games, singing, and eating — often by candlelight, presumably because that makes it even more cozy. American fetishization of the individual doesn’t encourage this sort of concerted effort to create connection and community, which is central to Danish culture.

What You Can Do With This

  • Get cozy with the wife and kids. Turn the phones off, light some candles, play some games, and sing — singing, in particular, is a great way to get your hygge on.

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