What is Wrong with “American” Parenting?: Insights into and Lessons from Danish and German Parenting

American Parenting

The Danish Way of Parenting: What the Happiest People in the World Know About Raising Confident, Capable Kids

SSP: Did you read parenting books before or after you got pregnant? If so, what kinds of books were these and looking back, where do you think The Danish Way… fits into the “hierarchy” of parenting books?

JJA: I read literally hundreds of parenting books. I was put on bed rest for 5 months with my daughter so I wanted to be “uber” prepared. I read books from how to take care of your baby to the neuroscience of how interactions shape their brains to parenting techniques. I had a whole parenting library at home. But after the birth, I found that I always preferred my Danish family and friends’ advice to the books. This went on for years until I realized Denmark was voted for over 40 years as one of the happiest countries in the world. I put two and two together and knew I had to write this book! I was convinced it was due to the parenting. If it helped me so much, I knew it could help anyone.

SSP: How challenging was it for you, personally, to recognize your own default parenting style, perhaps even unbeknownst to you until that moment, pause, reflect, and then respond?  

Parenting is a work in progress! It takes awareness every day to change our default settings and become the people we want to become. Click To Tweet

JJA: It still is a challenge. Parenting is a work in progress! It takes awareness every day to change our default settings and become the people we want to become. It helps me a lot though to know that I believe so much in this philosophy. It takes away a lot of the doubt. it’s really just a matter of making sure I have that awareness to make choices which are different than my default settings. If we are stressed, exhausted or stretched to our limits it’s always going to be hard to react as we want to. But then we also have to have empathy for ourselves and try next time.

SSP: Why do you think books on non-American/international parenting are so popular in the US now? Where did we Americans go wrong? What needs to change?

JJA:Jessica Alexander Quote

JJA: I never focus on “errors”. I try to focus on strengths and just see what we can build on.  I think we need to help people learn how to manage situations in a new way (and that works even better) because for many, spanking is just a default setting they learned from their own parents.

SSP: I don’t think, at least theoretically, parents are going to argue that kids need to play. The definition of “play” however, may have somewhat radically shifted over the years, from carefree abandoned free play (as in, playgrounds and parks) to more structured activities and non-curricular programs. For example, vis-à-vis academics, parents may consider violin lessons, or Taekwondo classes, or ballet practices or what have you, as play too.
How might your more traditional definition of play be usefully explained within this context? In other words, if nothing changes tomorrow, how might the lessons Danish parents hope their kids learn from playing also be taught with newer definitions of play? Would your definition of play be inclusive of these alternative ways of playing?

JJA:  The whole purpose of free play for Danes (which is an educational theory and has been since 1871) is that they see it as serious learning in itself. What kids are learning they can not learn in the same way in organized activities. Things like empathy, negotiation skills, self-control, resilience and stress coping mechanisms are all things they are learning in play because it is driven by them, not adults. Since children innately want to play, they find creative ways to make new games and work out their problems. It is also their way of unpacking their days. These are the things free play is teaching that adults have come to take for granted. Our biggest challenge, as I see it, is to believe in the power of play and stand back and know that for kids, play is serious learning.

SSP: What made Authenticity and Reframing stand out to you as particularly unique to Danish parenting ways? Are there things within these two areas from which American parents can learn?

JJA: Authenticity in the Danish context is about how honest they are with children. There are no taboo topics. They read books that talk about death and sex and that don’t always have a happy ending. This is happening already from when they are very young. What I discovered in the research was that this is building empathy and resilience because life doesn’t always have a happy ending. We, as adults, have deemed what is appropriate for kids to hear or read, but Danes see kids as extremely competent from birth. They believe it is the parents job to be honest with them in an age appropriate way.

Reframing is just an amazing skill they teach their children who grow up to do it naturally. It was something I was aware of in the culture and I could see how much our language changes how we feel. If we change our words we change our lives and children mirror this. I think learning empathy and reframing has changed my life the most -not just as a parent but as a person.

SSP: Why do you think it is so natural for some parents to go the “Because I say so” or “If you don’t do…, then…” routes?

JJA: For the same reason it is natural for some parents to spank. Because that is what their parents did. Parenting is one of the hardest jobs in the world and yet the one job for which (for the most part) we get no training in. So, of course we do what our parents did a lot of the time because we have no other point of reference. That is why it is SO important to examine your own default settings and choose one or two things you want to change and stick to those. For me, it was spanking. I was spanked as a child so it would have been natural for me to do it. Sometimes it has been hard not to do it in times of desperation (because it is so engrained in me). I don’t blame myself for thinking of it, but I am very proud of myself for controlling myself. It is only because I examined my own default settings (what my parents did) that I was able to really change from authoritarian to authoritative.

SSP: Of all the tips, and suggestions you provide throughout your book, what have been the most useful in your own day-to-day parenting?

JJA: Teach respect, be respectful and you will be respected.

SSP: While the book and its contents fall neatly into the P A R E N T acronym, have there been some parenting outliers that did not find a place in the letters, that may just as well be considered a Danish quality pertaining to parenting?

JJA: Oh yes! There are a couple of big ones and I am writing about them right now. Stay tuned for the next book

SSP: As a self-confessed “nonmaternal woman”, considering your own journey as a parent, how far do you think you have come during and since writing this book? How did writing this book change your own perspectives (if it did), or reaffirmed what you believed to be good and right about American parenting, or help you develop your own hybrid style?

It has completely and utterly changed my life. It has made me a better person. I am so much more aware of how our language matters, how to use empathy and how to reframe situations. It is a constant work in progress but I can honestly say I am happier for it.

SSP: Has your Danish husband adopted what one might traditionally call a more “American” parenting style? Would you give us some examples of how you may have combined parenting styles (neither American nor Danish) or do you strictly only follow the Danish way?

 JJA: That is an interesting question. Well we have a plastic tree for Christmas not a real tree 🙂 That is not at all Danish. Probably in the consumer side of things we are more American. If it were up to him, we would have all Scandinavian designed things but we don’t. We also don’t eat strictly Danish food. However, on the parenting side, we are very aligned. I still learn from him on a regular basis. We learn from our kids. I would say I am pretty converted to the Danish Way overall in terms of raising kids. He has never imposed any ideas on me. I came to this realization on my own that I found it to be a really healthy philosophy.

To be continued…

Also read:  Filmmaker Eli Steele on Raising Multiracial Kids and the Myth of a Post-Racial America

Coming up:
Our review of The Danish Way of Parenting
Our interview with Sara Zaske, author of Achtung Baby
Our review of Achtung Baby

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