The fairly odd parents: Are Danes world leaders or poor breeders?

The tendency is to be honest and not mollycoddle children – and that’s healthy, argues an expert on public health.

In October last year, Denmark found itself the subject of immense international censure when Odense Zoo made the controversial decision to dissect a lion cub in front of an audience of ‘horrified’ children.

Everyone and their mother weighed in – from Sergey Donskoy, a Russian Minister, to late-night heavyweight John Oliver, it appeared no-one could wrap their heads around Denmark’s unique approach to parenting its children.

Daddy cool
And the bewilderment didn’t end there.

In December, Danish comedian Torben Chris defended his right to have hyggeligt bath times with his two-year-old daughter, saying there was nothing wrong with a father and infant daughter bathing together in the nude.

His post was shared over 60,000 times and most of the comments from home-grown Danes were positive.

International outlets, including the Independent and Huffington Post, picked up the story, and most asked the same question: “Is this inappropriate?”

Opinions were mixed and the post was (perhaps not coincidentally) taken down – no word yet on whether it was deleted by Facebook or Chris himself.

The fairly odd parents
In a bid to understand what it is that makes Danish parents such cool customers, the Copenhagen Post Weekly sat down with Helle Karina Bastrup, a team leader at Odense Municipality’s public health department with over 20 years’ experience working with children and their parents – as both a nurse and public health careworker.

From incredibly relaxed attitudes concerning nudity to Facebook memes that spam children’s events with posts about the availability of condoms, Danish attitudes to children can sometimes be hard to comprehend. But what exactly is the difference?

Bastrup believes the key lies in honesty and an unwillingness to mollycoddle children.

“I really believe that Danish parents – and Danes in general – are more open with their children,” she contended.

“When they [the children] ask us hard questions, they get truthful answers. We also talk about sex and gender a lot earlier than parents in other countries do.”

Nothing is off-limits
Bastrup believes nothing should be off-limits when it comes to discussing issues with your kids.

“Everything is up for discussion in Danish families. That can lead to situations where boundaries are a little looser and that can be difficult, but it leads to more understanding in the long run.”

This, she contends, is why many Danes responded with a baffled expression when the international media kicked up such a fuss about the lion dissection.
“Take the case of the dissection, for instance. Danes were very confused with the negative media attention. If you eat meat, then why shouldn’t you also see the source?” she reasoned.

“There’s less mollycoddling of children in Denmark. Dying is a part of life. Danish parents don’t have the attitude of ‘we have to protect children from things like death till they’re old enough’. When is someone ‘old enough’ to experience real life?”

Safe (to talk about) sex
In a world where most countries, including America, are still debating whether sex education should be part of a school’s curriculum at all, Bastrup has taught the subject to children as young as 11.
“Sex education in Denmark starts in the 5th grade, when children are 11,” she said.

“We show them a cartoon called ‘Sådan får man altså børn’ that brings everything down to a level that children can understand without censoring things unnecessarily. You see how a new life begins. It’s normal!”

The cartoon features a cartoon man and woman enthusiastically engaging in the cowgirl position with their bits on full display while a child narrates: “In the end the sperm from the penis goes into the vagina.”

Trust yourself
However, Bastrup is careful to note that sex education doesn’t just stop with the mechanical in-and-outs, so to speak.

“We use the opportunity to make them aware of their own feelings, bodies and intuition. We tell them they need to have a ‘yes, yes’ feeling in any situation – sexual or otherwise,” she said.

“We also make sure we emphasise that if they have a ‘no, no’ feeling, they need to voice their thoughts and the other person in the situation needs to respect that ‘no’. In other words, we teach them to trust their own intuition.”

“We show them a cartoon called ‘Sådan får man altså børn’ that brings everything down to a level that children can understand without censoring things unnecessarily. You see how a new life begins. It’s normal!”

She connects this aspect of sex-ed with situations like the one Torben Chris defended in his Facebook post.

“If someone asked me if it was okay for him to take a bath with his daughter, I would say yes,” she asserted.

“Unless the child was much older. But with really young children, until they’re 3 or 4, I think that’s perfectly alright. And I really believe that the child would be aware if s/he was uncomfortable or felt like things were becoming inappropriate.”

Nudity ≠ sex
Bastrup also believes that the relaxed attitude that Danes have towards nudity and the fact that children are exposed to it from an early age can be a good thing.
“There’s less body anxiety when you’re exposed to nudity from an early age,” she continued.

“You see bodies for what they are and all their differences, and you learn that nudity doesn’t automatically equal sexuality. When I was growing up, places like communal changing rooms or a woman breast-feeding in public were non-issues. I think it’s becoming more of a problem today because suddenly the world has become obsessed with sex! And that’s so unfortunate.”

No stranger danger
Bastrup thinks that another reason for the relaxed attitudes towards children in the country is that ‘stranger danger’ is not so much of a concern in Denmark.
“I think that we in Denmark believe that people won’t do untoward things,” she said.

“We’re not overly suspicious of people. Crimes towards children are not as common in Denmark as in other parts of the world. We tend not to assume that everybody out there is a paedophile.”

This, she explains, is why there has been no serious inquest into why a large number of children’s events on Facebook have, in recent weeks, been spammed by hordes of adult Danes asking questions ranging from what drugs will be on offer to whether or not they should bring their own protection.

Many events have been cancelled as a result, but Bastrup believes it’s all harmless – if a little inconvenient – fun.

“It doesn’t seem ill-intentioned,” she said.

“I think it’s just a way to kill time – albeit an inconvenient, juvenile one.”

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