Denmark is consistently ranked one of the happiest countries in the world. So what does it take to snag a driver’s seat on the happiness scale?
Many would argue it starts in childhood and delaying the onset of serious education in favour of concentrating on the children’s well-being, interaction with others and general empathy.
Nevertheless, Danish children do tend to enter the system early – some as young as a few months old.
They typically start nursery (vuggestuen) at the age of one, then kindergarten (børnehaven) at the age of three, and school at the age of six, easing into their formal education with a full year known as the ‘kindergarten class’.
At daycare, children are typically placed in groups of 10-15 with three to four supervisors. This ensures they have quality one-on-one time with supervisors and are not overwhelmed by a constant stream of new faces, allowing them to develop a familiarity with one another.
The children are split into groups based on how they interact with each other, and this allows the children to learn from one another. By putting a quiet child in a group with a more outgoing child, it allows for children to learn from one another’s differences and push each other out of their comfort zones.
Interacting with dolls
This was all too clear on our visit to the Louis Petersens Børnegård Vuggestuen & Børnehaven in mid-September. We were there to observe the visit of Ruben’s Barn, a Swedish doll company, and Elfe Design, a Japanese child education company currently promoting empathy in the Japanese school system.
The tour began with us observing the children, both boys and girls, playing with the Ruben’s Barn dolls. The children cared tenderly for the dolls, imitating what they see in their lives.
By using the special dolls, the children are given the tools to look at another child and determine how they are feeling and what they need.
Because the dolls are made with a realistic emotional look, explained Teruko Wahlstrom, the owner of Ruben’s Barn, it helps the children see the dolls as a friend rather than a toy. The realistic eyes allow the children to learn eye contact, helping them develop deeper friendships with other children.
“The faces of our dolls are sculptured in soft fabric for a more emotional and realistic look. The dolls have rosy cheeks and realistic eyes. They are soft and cuddly, allowing children to treat them as a friend rather than an object,” explained Wahlstrom.
“A child playing and interacting with a Rubens Barn doll – developing their empathy to later become more understanding and sociable adults – is what motivates us.”
Strong emphasis at school
Teaching empathy does not end at the kindergarten. At regular schools, classes are not streamed, thus enabling a mix of different abilities and encouraging teamwork.
The children are given lots of freedom to express themselves, and a laid-back environment is conducive to that kind of learning. Teachers, for example, are addressed by their first names.
Competition is not encouraged. Instead, the schools’ main goal is to make students feel comfortable enough so that they willingly and optimistically attend. Instead of worrying about standardised testing, kids get to focus on building friendships and interacting with others.
Emphasising social skills and empathy has proven effective as universities in Denmark have one of the highest rates of graduation among all OECD member countries.
And the Danish focus on empathy and social awareness is becoming increasingly universal – even though the practicality of implementing this model in other countries is easier said than done.
Not affordable for all
One drawback for many countries is the cost. Thanks to generous welfare states funded by a high rate of taxation, Scandinavian countries like Sweden and Denmark can easily afford to subsidise their childcare programs so they are affordable for all.
Accordingly, 98 percent of Danish pre-school children use a childcare system of which 75 percent of the costs are covered by the state.
In contrast, many American and British families cannot afford childcare, and those that do often pay through the nose. For example, the average British family in which both parents work spend a third of their net household income on childcare. In London, the annual cost of daycare for a two-year-old ranges from 120,000 and 240,000 kroner a year.
The US and UK might teach their children to read at an earlier age – compared to Danish kids, who can rarely read well by the age of eight – but is it worth prioritising?
Jessica Joelle Alexander, the co-author of ‘The Danish Way of Parenting’, doesn’t think so.
“In Denmark they believe that children need to be taught how to read and define the emotions of others, not just how to read and write,” she said.
“Studies show that developing empathy and social skills early on leads to more success and well-being as an adult.”
Alexander is adamant that the Danish way is the best approach.
“Research is coming out left, right and centre that homework isn’t necessary, that testing is harming kids and that no matter how early a child reads, it evens out eventually,” she said.
“The only difference is that the kids who are pushed to read earlier will have higher levels of anxiety along with those initial higher test scores.”