Denmark is a pretty good place to raise children.
Working hours are short, and it’s perfectly OK to leave work at 3 or 4 o’clock to pick up your kids. There’s a good system for early childhood health. A nurse visits your home when your child is a baby. Later, there are regular checkups with a doctor.If your child has the sniffles, you can take off work and stay home with her. The first two days are paid time off.
And, of course, there’s the day care system. It’s not free, but it’s reasonably priced, and it’s nice to be able to drop off your kid in a safe place with trained people while you go to work.
In some countries, there’s a lot of controversy about whether very young children should be in day care or at home with their parents. Not in Denmark. 97% of kids go to day care, even the children of the Royal Family. Even the future king, currently known as ten-year-old Prince Christian, went to day care.
Everyone goes to day care partly because the Danish tax structure means both parents have to go to work.
Day care is social engineering
But Danish day care is also social engineering. It’s about creating that equality and community spirit that everyone prizes in Denmark. Day care is the first step in making your child more Danish than wherever you come from.
The famous Jante Law is introduced in day care. The Jante Law being you are not allowed to be better than anyone else, and you should be ashamed if you’re trying to be. In Denmark, ambition is embarrassing.
For example, one day I was there to pick up my daughter, and since it was a spring day and she wasn’t finished with her sand castle, I sat on the edge of the sandbox and waited. There was a little boy there who was just starting to take his first steps, holding on to the side of the sandbox. I got really excited. I said, Come on, you can do it! You’re good at this! Good boy!
One of the Danish daycare supervisors came over shaking her head. She said, “I think he knows he’s good at walking.”
No competition in education
The Jante Law is part of all Danish education. There’s no elite education here, no advanced, or gifted and talented programs. If you child is better than the others at a certain subject, his job is to help the students who are not as good.
If you come from a very competitive society – the US, the UK, China, India – that can be a bit of a shock. There’s no competition in Danish education. The kids work in groups. There are no competitive schools you have to fight to get into. There’s almost no standardized testing until the kids are 15 or 16. And there are relatively few tests within the daily school lessons.
In Danish school, your child’s social life is considered what’s most important. Does she have friends? Can she get along with the other children in the class? Does he like to go to school? Does he fit in?
The idea is that if a child is socially comfortable in school, if he or she wants to go to school, then academic success will follow.
Kids don’t learn to read until age 8 or 9
Children in Danish schools don’t learn to read very well until they’re 8 or 9. This can be a little embarrassing if you go home for a visit. Your kid’s cousins of the same age are tearing through the third volume of Harry Potter while your kid can barely read the menu at McDonalds.
But they do catch up. Keep in mind that Denmark has one of the highest educational levels in the world, and is home to some really big biotech companies, medical research, high-end sound equipment companies. The system seems to work, on some level.
What’s more the children are very self-assured, and ready to take responsibility for themselves. Even when they’re very small, they’re expected to sort out their own problems to the extent they can, without intervention from adults. By age 10 it’s common for Danish children to take the public bus or train to and from school all by themselves.
I met a woman from India once, who had a sister who had immigrated to Denmark. They had sons about the same time. This woman’s son was raised in India, while her nephew was raised in Denmark.
The boys were now men in their early 20s, both at university, and according to this woman, her nephew raised in Denmark was much more mature, much more confident, much more able to run his own life. Her son was very good with the dry stuff of academics, but the nephew was pretty good too, and he was more of a well-rounded person.
So, if you raise kids in Denmark, you have to be ready to go with the flow. Of course you don’t have to give up your own culture entirely, but one of the ironies, I find, is that you end up teaching your child about your culture as you knew it, as opposed to the way the culture is now.
For example, we watch a lot of old American TV shows in my house – the shows I watched when I was a child. I Love Lucy. The Brady Bunch. They’re good shows, but my child gets a very old-fashioned version of American culture and American English.
I heard her saying something was ‘groovy’ the other day. I don’t think anyone in the U.S. has said ‘groovy’ since the 1970s.
I feel like I’m raising a child in contemporary Denmark, and in an America 40 years in the past.
Image mashup copyright Kay Xander Mellish 2020