DUTCH PARENTING van Bonnie
Parenting in Holland. Is it all about babies in bike baskets?
A Unicef survey found that Dutch children are the happiest in the world, and their mothers don’t get depressedbecause Dutch women have the best balance between family and part-time word. So, is parenting in Holland really Living The Dream?
We asked Boonie Joosten, a mother of four, antenatal yoga teacher and childcare assistant…
I’ve known Bonnie since we were tiny girls sitting under the kitchen table, trying to get ballet shoes on our Sindy dolls (she remembers this better than I do). Half-Dutch, she is one of the most naturally elegant, serene and lovely women I know. She grew up in England, but, 11 years ago, moved to Amsterdam with her partner, Sander. Since then, she has gone on to have four gorgeous children: Oliver (9), Bibi (8), Floris (6), and Tijn (3). In this, our second in a series on parenting around the world (you can read our fascinating insight on Sweden here), Bonnie tells us what it’s really like to raise a family in Holland…
When and why did you move to The Netherlands?
11 years ago we were living and working in London when a job opportunity came up for Sander in Amsterdam. Actually, his mum found the ad in a paper: I think she was missing him! He got the job, and so we upped and left.
Haarlem (a market town which sits between Amsterdam and seaside town of Zandvoort- aan –Ze) was Sander’s student town and he had always planned to end up there. I have family in the area, too, and it’s such a wonderful place to live. It’s convenient for work in Amsterdam, but cheaper and cosier than Amsterdam; plus it’s a cycle ride to the beach. Perfect.
Haarlem has many neighbourhoods, but once you’ve been here for a while you realise it’s more a village then a town. There isn’t much between you and the next person. We live in the ‘binnenstad‘ (centre of town) and it’s lovely: old buildings and quirky streets. Everything we need as a family is a short walk or cycle ride away; school, swimming, baseball, supermarket, market, beach, wood…
We live in a ‘boven woning‘ which, translated literally, means an ‘up house’. We live above a shop which sells Buddha statues and jos sticks! But we have three stories, tall ceilings, and two bedrooms to share (which keeps it cosy)! We have very little outside space, and as soon as you open the front door it’s a hike up 22 stairs before you’re in; in the past, buggies, bikes, umbrellas, roof racks and a number of other objects have adorned the walls on entry.
What’s it like as a place to raise a family?
Raising a family here is great. Everything is accessible, children are accepted and tolerated (in varying degrees), but they’re given a lot of freedom to be.
As a family we spend a lot of time at the nearby lake: it serves as a watering hole in summer and a skating rink in the winter. In between, it’s a fantastic place to walk and cycle.
We cycle a lot: beach, lake, woods, play areas, recreation areas, children’s farms. Or, on less weather-friendly days you’ll find us at home: clearing out the laundry room (no bigger than a cupboard), watching a film, playing a game or just being a family. Saturday is shopping day, so we all head off to the market and the supermarket – it’s become a bit of a ritual. Sander and I think it’s important that the children participate in the family shop and here it’s no chore: at the market they get fed with everything from bananas to ‘stroopwafels‘ (traditional caramel biscuits).
What’s the Dutch attitude towards pregnancy and birth?
Most births are expected to happen at home – but that’s changing. Now, over half of all births end up in hospital (even though they nearly all start at home). And, yes, all births are expected to be vaginal as opposed to c-section unless there is a very good reason. A c-section is rarely planned; the decision to do one is usually made during labour.
Talk us through the prenatal process?
Once you fall pregnant, you call a midwifery practice to schedule an appointment (around 8 weeks). This then becomes the practice that monitors and looks after you during pregnancy, birth, and for a short while after the birth.
It varies from practice to practice, but in my experience there are 4-6 midwives per practice, and you meet each one before you give birth. Providing everything goes smoothly, the midwife is responsible for all your check-ups. She arranges the scans (there are 2 scans here in the NL: one scan at 12 weeks the other at 20 weeks). Some practices now offer a scan at 32 weeks but it is by no way standard). If you encounter problems during your pregnancy, you are referred to a gynaecologist.
If everything is going to plan, labour starts at home and you call the midwife, who comes and check on you. Once you’ve been checked, you’ll remain in contact with the midwife and she’ll lead the labour process. If you want to stay at home, you give birth at home with the midwife and the ‘kraamzorg‘.
If you want pain relief, hospital is the only option as a midwife is not allowed to administer medicine. However, nearly all labours start at home and a move to the hospital is done in conjunction with the midwife.
There are also birthing centres, but I don’t know anyone who has made use of one. Basically, it’s a special centre equipped for labour: you give birth there and then stay for a full week afterwards to receive care and rest.
The most fantastic thing about giving birth here is that we have a choice. Home or hospital; pain relief or no pain relief; and we can make the decision whilst in labour. What a luxury! What a freedom….
And after the birth?
A ‘Kraamzorg‘ comes to your house for between 4-8 hours a day for 7 days after the birth to look after you and the baby. (If you give birth at home she assists with the birth, too). She does the cleaning, washing, bed-changing and hoovering. She ensures that the new mother eats healthily and drinks enough liquid. She will send you to bed if she thinks you’re tired and tell visitors to go away if they come at a bad time! She will also make sure that the baby is well, healthy and feeding properly – and takes his/her temperature twice a day. She also shows the new parents how to look after a baby (i.e. how to wash them, how to change a nappy, how to make a bed, what to do if they get cramp etc). She usually also talks a lot and doesn’t generally have time for fathers who complain about being tired!
How do Dutch women approach the breast v bottle feeding debate?
Breastfeeding is really pushed as being the one and only way to feed your baby in The Netherlands. The Kraamzorg has often had extra training on breast-feeding to help new mothers; in the hospitals there are lactation experts and you only have to mention that you may need help with breastfeeding and an expert is arranged for you. Many women feel pressured into breastfeeding, and then if it doesn’t work out they can feel like failures. However, Dutch women are pretty tough and won’t be forced into something that doesn’t feel right.
However, it’s not often that you see a mother feeding her child in public; I was always at it, but I’m not sure where the rest go! The percentage of women who breastfeed drops dramatically after about 1-3 months: I think this is due to problems in the first weeks, and the fact that women return to work: every employer should have a special room available to mothers so that they can express milk, but the reality is different.
Are children exposed to a range of different foods from a young age? Is there a typically Dutch way of weaning?
The first solid foods are given between 4 and 6 months, usually beginning with pureed fruit or vegetables mixed with baby rice. I’m not sure if there’s a particular ‘Dutch’ way of doing it, but small children who can chew will always be given a ‘krentenbol‘ (currant bun) or piece of ‘ontbijtkoek‘ (a spiced cake). It’s very common to see a child on the front or back of a bike munching one of the above. You won’t see the Dutch sitting their children down at a table and giving them food and drink when they’re out and about (unless it’s breakfast, lunch or dinner of course); it’s normal to eat on the bike or in the playground as you walk around. (Although eating on the street is something you rarely see in adults.)
Parents are very sparing when it comes to sandwiches and fillings. There is a lot of sweet stuff to put on bread here (chocolate sprinkles, chocolate spread, coloured sugar sweet aniseed) so you might expect everyone to be fat, but people put a very measly portion on their bread – and most children have to eat a savoury sandwich first! It’s sensible, but makes me smile.
What’s the national maternity and paternity leave policy?
Women are allowed four to six weeks maternity leave before the due date and 10 weeks after the due date. In total 16 weeks (paid). Men have two days (paid).
There’s also the option to take unpaid leave: up to 26 weeks per child up to eight years of age in a 12-month period. You must have worked under the same employer for 12 months.
Many women also use holiday days to extend their maternity leave, but in general they are back to work after three months’ maternity leave, but they usually return on a part-time basis. Most mothers will choose to work a three-day week and some fathers go down from five to four days.
Is it true everyone takes their child everywhere by bike?!
Yes, yes and yes! Everything is done by bike. Bikes take priority over all other traffic, and it’s not at all peculiar to see a three-year-old on a two-wheeler! Children are also transported on bikes either on the front or back of the adult bike or in a ‘bakfiets‘ (a bike with a big box on the front for transporting multiple children!)
What’s the attitude to childcare?
Many children go to a crèche from three months old. The government subsidize a percentage of the childcare, but it’s always changing. A couple of years ago it was almost fully subsidized, but now it’s salary related and far less is subsidised (I know enough people where a large proportion of one salary goes on childcare). We also have ‘gastouders‘: people who look after children in their home. They are allowed a maximum of four children in their care. There are also a huge number of parents who rely on Oma and Opa (granny and granddad) to look after the children in order to keep childcare costs down. In fact I would bet that grandparents are our largest group of child carers!
Are fathers very involved with caring for their children?
My personal opinion is that women will always remain the key carer, but men here are – generally – very involved with their children. You see them taking and collecting their children from school; in the playground; at sports clubs; and in the swimming pool. Men love their children in The Netherlands; they are proud of them and really enjoy being with them. But from what I can glean from others, men are pretty much all the same when it comes to household chore: they cook, wash and clean when it suits them, but it’ll always be mummy who remembers the dentist, the gym bag, the lunch box and the favourite toy! The older I get, the more I am convinced I am that it’s a battle of the sexes and the fact that our priorities lie in different things. But in general men here are helpful, though is also usually the women who choose to work part-time after the birth of a child – but that is also probably down to comparative salaries and and wanting to be with the child.
What age do children start school (including preschool)?
‘Peuterspeelzaal’ is equivalent to playgroup, for children from two years three months to four years old. Peuterspeelzaal is government run and usually from 8.30 to 11.45 every morning, and children usually attend peuterspeelzaal two-three mornings a week. Of course peuterspeelzaal is only handy if you’re at home and able to collect your child, but in Haarlem they are all full, so they must be good! Peuterspeelzaal is a good preparation for school as it teached children interactive play and independence, and they learning colours and shapes etc.
Children start school at four – even if they turn four in March, they start school immediately after their birthday. The first school is known as ‘basisschool’ and has an age range of four-12. The school years are counted in groups. So when children start, they will be in group 1, which is a mixed group for children ages four to six – and they spend the first two years with the same teachers. It’s known as Group1/2 or the ‘kleuterklas‘; within the group the children are known either as the ‘jongste‘ (youngest) or ‘oudste’ (oldest), despite the fact that they do many activities together. In group 1/2 you learn through play, you have gym lessons and play outside three times a day. For the eldest children there are activities which teach them to recognise letters and numbers, shapes and colours, but it’s all very much led by the interest that the child shows. In group 1/2 there are 2 parents’ evenings in which progress is discussed, but the focus lies very much on the social and emotional development of the child.
Have you noticed any big differences in terms of education?
Yes, in the first two years the focus is social and emotional: it’s about being together, playing and finding your feet. The teachers are very nurturing and there is absolute no pressure to learn words or numbers. Children start school at four regardless of their birthday, but if parents and teachers think that a child needs to spend an extra year in the kleuterklas, s/he does. My eldest son spent three years in the kleuterklas because neither the teacher nor us as parents felt that he was emotionally ready for group 3.
Children only begin to properly learn to read and write and do maths when they go into group 3.
If a child does not reach the required level of attainment at the end of a year it will be kept back a year. Also if a child is particularly clever and is more than capable of the work set in one group it will be fast-forwarded a year.
What’s the best thing about the Dutch attitude to parenting?
Acceptance of who the child is. Giving them independence and freedom to experiment and learn by experience. We don’t mind our manners here!
And what’s the worst (if there is one)?
Letting that freedom and independence go just a little too far sometimes, which can result in obnoxious behaviour!
Is Dutch parenting really more permissive than in the UK or is that a myth?
The country itself certainly seems more permissive – do you think this is reflected in the children and their attitudes?
Parenting is certainly more relaxed than what I’ve seen in the UK. It’s very more learn by play, and parents seem far more accepting of their children here. They appreciate and value who their children are as individuals, even if they may not always like what they see or hear (in terms of their behaviour). We’re not so hot on our ‘pleases’ and ‘thank yous’ and ‘sorrys’. It’s not that everyone is really impolite – we’re just not over polite!
People seem to think that The Netherlands is a really permissive country, but the reality is that it’s not like that at all. Yes, it’s true we have the infamous coffee shops and the red light district, but we are actually quite reserved in our thinking and doing. The Brits are far more accepting of anything which falls outside of the box than the Dutch. However, there is no class system here and that makes a huge difference.
I think the freedom that children grow up with and the fact that they are from the start valued members of society, plays a huge role in how they grow and develop.