The Danish ‘parents’ rearing the next generation of Israelis

Regardless of whether it’s called ‘The Danish Approach’ or ‘The Danish Way’, this country’s parenting methods are taking hold in the most unlikely of places

Shani Shavit, the daughter of a Danish mother and an Israeli father, is a special kind of importer. What she imports can’t be found on any customs declaration. What Shavit is importing to Israel is ‘The Danish Approach’ towards parenting and early-age education.

Two eye-opening visits

Shani Shavit

Shavit, 33, a well sought-after lecturer and parenting advisor, is the founder of the nearly 9,000-strong Facebook group ‘The Danish Approach – The Secrets of Raising Happy Kids’ (translated from Hebrew).

The former kindergarten caretaker advises the personnel of Israeli daycare institutions on how to avoid conflict and evoke co-operation among children, passing on what she has herself learnt and experienced first-hand during two recent trips to Denmark.

Surprisingly, what drew the attention of Shavit to The Danish Approach wasn’t her own upbringing.

“A year ago I discovered Danes are considered to be the happiest nation in the world for the past 40 years, so I thought that if they know how to raise happy kids, there must be something we can learn from them,” she explained.

This led to Shavit paying two trips to the Scandinavian country, during which she visited Danish kindergartens (børnehave) and nurseries (vuggestue), meeting with pedagogues, parents, psychologists, home-schoolers and youngsters. What she saw was an eye-opener.

Cutting out the conflict
“In Israel, we put an emphasis on discipline, which creates a lot of conflict, and it’s hard to teach a child when there’s conflict,” she said.

“What I saw in Denmark was that Danes really understand kids, and they know how to work with them – and that is very beautiful to see. In Israel, if a child cries, you usually explain to him why he shouldn’t cry, or that there’s no reason to cry. In Denmark, it is okay to cry: ‘You’re hurt? It’s fine.’ It’s that small, but it makes a big difference.”

Shavit was also impressed with how they dealt with a hyperactive child.

“Instead of making him sit down and participate, the staff thought about what’s best for the child, and realised that’s being outdoors. So they decided he’ll join the group heading out for a nature walk every day, instead of once a week like the other kids,” she recalled.

“In Israel, this might be looked upon as if the badly behaving child is being rewarded: ‘What will the other kids learn? Behave badly and you’ll be rewarded?’ In Denmark, they look at it differently: ‘This child has different needs, and we need to help him.’ And so the other kids look at it the same way.”

“In Israel the predominant approach is that when children display unacceptable behaviour, they should receive a negative response in order to learn not to repeat it. I want people to realise it’s the complete opposite. Children don’t learn when they get negative responses. The only way they do learn is in a safe environment. Then they’re ready and available to learn.”

For example, in cases of violence, there is a big difference, according to Shavit.
“In Denmark, they understand this is the way kids communicate sometimes. They’ll try to understand why the child hit out, and then they’ll try to understand what he could have done differently, so that he’ll know next time how he can react. In this way you also have a learning process. You’re teaching the child,” she said.

“Also, the Danes understand that if a grown-up has a conflict with a child, it’s not because something is wrong with the child. It means something I’m doing isn’t right, or that the environment isn’t right.”

Investing in their future
Responsibility is also an important factor, and the Danes tend to give a lot to children, observes Shavit.

“Danish children understand that learning is a process and, if right now you’re not capable of doing something, it’s okay, you’ll learn, and they’re there to teach you,” she contended.

“And they’re very aware of the child’s brain development. Children’s brains are not fully developed at kindergarten age, so there are things they can’t do. Danes understand responsibility is something you learn, and they teach you how to take responsibility for things, so you’ll be capable of doing it.”

But the difference between the Israeli and Danish early-age education systems isn’t merely conceptual, it’s also materialistic. According to OECD stats, Denmark spends about 10,000 US dollars per child a year on education (all ages), whereas Israel spends about half that sum on its kindergarten kids (ages 3-5) and nothing on nursery education, which is mainly private and costs the parents about 6,000 kroner per child per month.

This means, among others, that at the Israeli public kindergartens, by Shavit’s own account, one will normally find two caretakers (one qualified kindergartner and one assistant) in charge of up to 35 kids. This is a far cry from the pedagogue-child ratio in Danish institutions.

Danish inspiration

(Photo: Shani Shavit)

Shavit is convinced it is possible to implement Danish methods in Israel despite the limited funding and low caretaker-child ratio.

“There are kindergartens in Israel that operate according to similar approaches to the Danish one, like the Dialogic Pedagogy Approach – and it works,” she enthused.

“I think it’s even more important to reduce conflict in a 35/2 situation. It clears up more time and energy for meaningful learning.”

It’s hard to hear Shavit use terms like “reduce conflict” without thinking of the profound differences between Danes and Israelis in this respect – not least their tendency to avoid (Danes) or engage (Israelis) in confrontation.

“There are also a lot of good things in Israel, and the Israeli education system reflects them as well,” she said.

“Israelis love learning and exploring and making things better, and a lot of effort is being put in towards improving education and children’s wellbeing. There are a lot of amazing educators and caretakers that are doing their best for the kids.

We’re seeking all the time for better tools and other approaches, and one way to do it is to learn from other nations. People want this change: they’re looking out for inspiration, and I chose to look in Denmark for it.”

A US comparison

Jessica Alexander

It turns out Israelis aren’t the only ones looking Denmark’s way for parenting inspiration.

Jessica Joelle Alexander, an expert on Danish parenting, is the co-author of the book ‘The Danish Way of Parenting’ and author of the soon to be published ‘The Danish Way of Education’. She too fell in love with the Danish parenting style.

“It started back before I was thinking of having kids – back when I lived in Denmark with my Danish husband,” she recalled.

“I looked at the kids in Denmark and how happy they seemed – how well behaved and responsible and serene. When I got pregnant I read hundreds of books on parenting. But when my child was born, I found myself preferring my Danish family’s advice. It always seemed to work.”

Like Shavit, Alexander too comes from a culture whose prevalent parenting model is very different.

“The roots of the US culture are very authoritarian, discipline-focused”, she said.
“There are about 19 states in which corporal punishment in school is still allowed. Most people don’t realise how prevalent spanking still is in America.

any people feel it’s their right to hit their kids even if it isn’t openly talked about.

Denmark was one of the first places where I noticed there was such a huge difference between Danish culture and my culture.”

All in the names

The biggest difference is what Alexander calls the ‘low power distance’.

“Kids call teachers by their first name in Denmark. Parents see children as completely competent from the time they’re babies. It’s not like I’m this big adult and you’re this small child. There’s a lot of respect for kids. And when you have this kind of respect, and on a much more equal basis, then everything changes about how you treat a child,” she contended.

Like Shavit, Alexander believes the proof can be found in the little things Danes do differently.

“It starts in seeing the child as fundamentally good and deserving of respect. For example, the words we use are very important,” she said.

“We call kids of a certain age ‘the terrible twos’. Danes, however, say ‘trodsalder’ (the independence age/the boundary pushing age). We say terrible twos’ and expect a child to be terrible. They say: ‘Look at this healthy age he has reached where he’s doing what he’s programmed to do’. You meet the child differently when you see the child differently.”

Ultimatum-free zones

(Photo: Shani Shavit)

In her book, Alexander highlights six key components of ‘The Danish Way’: Play, Authenticity, Reframing, Empathy, No Ultimatums, and Togetherness.

Alexander walked me through the six components and, as I did with Shavit, I focused on the ‘No ultimatums’ component, since even though I rarely give then, I’m not sure I’m ready to disarm myself from the ‘No TV!’ nuclear option just yet!
“Danes are more authoritative, not authoritarian,” asserted Alexander.

“One of the big differences is the level of patience. This ‘no ultimatums’ approach is not a magic wand that works the same way as hitting or screaming or making a child afraid might. Danes absolutely don’t want their children to fear them.

his is a philosophy you build up, and you build it up through trust and connection, understanding that when a child is acting out he actually needs more connection, not less. They need more help not less.”

Even after this explanation, it’s unlikely I’ll be giving up ultimatums altogether – but maybe I’m in the minority on this one. Alexander’s book about Danish parenting has been translated into Chinese, German, Spanish, Italian and more, reaching a total of 26 countries (and by chance, a few days after our interview, Alexander confirmed it will see the light in Israel soon).

Way of the word
Alexander travels the world talking about The Danish Way, and the word seems to be spreading.

“I just came back from a big conference in Brazil. They were very enthusiastic about it. Same in Mexico. They’re really looking into how they can implement it. I’m scheduled to travel to Luxembourg to talk to educators there about The Danish Way as well,” she continued.

“I’ve also done quite a lot of teaching to international schools, companies and parents about it. It’s also huge in Italy, a lot of places running courses on it. It became a little movement here. In South Korea it’s done really well. In Canada big institutes have already implemented the Danish Way, and a university in Iowa runs courses about it.”

The location is irrelevant, maintains Alexander. “I always tell people in my talks around the world – I’m not trying to recreate Denmark, but they’re doing great things in parenting, so why not learn from them?” she asked.

“Just like others adopted lasagna and pizza from Italy, this is something the Danes are really talented at, so let’s be open to this and see if there’s something we can take from them. I think we should try to export not just goods from countries but ways to be good.”

Perhaps in the not-so-distant future, parenting will be identified with Denmark, the same way lasagna and pizza are with Italy.

But even if that doesn’t happen, Denmark can now pride itself on yet another cultural export to follow ‘hygge’.

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