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Danish Parenting and Empathy

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Jessica Alexander, who wrote the book alongside Danish psychotherapist Iben Sandahl,"The Danish Way of Parenting: A Guide To Raising The Happiest Kids in the World" sat down with us to explain what exactly ���Danish parenting�۝ is and how this culture continues to bring up kids who are ���resilient and emotionally secure�۝���in other words, exactly what we�۪re all aiming for.

How would you describe Danish parenting?
���Danish parents actively teach their children
and to value others. They base their success on real teamwork rather than only striving to be the star. They work more on building a child�۪s self-esteem (a solid foundation of who they are in relation to others), rather than self-confidence (an outward appearance of what they can do, appear like, or own in relation to others). This sturdy foundation rooted firmly in empathy is what they believe brings true happiness and wellbeing to us all in the long run.�۝

What led you to write this book?
���I have been married to a Dane for 14 years and always marveled at the calm, well-behaved, and caring nature of children in Denmark. That was before I had kids. When I had my own, I realized that I preferred the Danes�۪ off-the-cuff advice above all the books/internet/friends and family advice I was getting. One day, while listening to my husband reframe my daughter�۪s language around the way she was experiencing something fearful, it hit me that there was truly ���a Danish way of parenting.�۪ They have a parenting style that is very different than ours and I was convinced that it was part of the reason they are so consistently voted as the happiest people in the world. I went to a Danish psychologist and together we laid out the main pillars of The Danish Way based on a lot of painstaking research.�۝

Tell us about that first concept: Using language choice to teach empathy.
���The first thing that is crucial to remember when teaching empathy is that our children are mirroring us. The kind of language we use is so important. How do you describe others? Are you understanding or judgmental? Tolerant or shaming? These are all things children are copying. Talking badly about others in front of kids and saying things like ���She is mean,�۪ ���He is selfish,�۪ ���She is so annoying�۪ is not empathic language because it isn�۪t recognizing the emotions behind the action���it�۪s labeling. In Denmark, you almost never hear parents talking negatively about other children in front of their children. They are always trying to find ways to get their children to understand another child�۪s behavior without a negative label. If you remember that all children are fundamentally good and there is a reason behind all behaviors, this helps us naturally find the good in others. This makes us feel better because it teaches ���reframing�۪���another Danish Way concept that improves happiness. We can help our children find the reasons behind the labels ���He is annoying? Do you think maybe he is hungry? Or could he be tired because he missed his nap? You know how it feels be to be hungry and tired, right?�۪ ���She is mean? It sounds like she had a bad day at school. The other day you said she was sweet. She is actually sweet, right?�۪ Helping children understand the feelings behind behaviors and leading them to a kinder conclusion is teaching empathy. It operates on the same neural pathway as forgiveness and it fosters more trust, cooperation, and a much better sibling relationship if you have more than one child. And don�۪t forget that parents have to have empathy for themselves sometimes, too. Parenting is hard and we don�۪t always get it right and that�۪s ok. Being understanding and forgiving of ourselves makes us better at forgiving our children and others.�۝

Explain the concept of self-regulation.
���Before we can be good at recognizing the emotions of others, we have to be able to understand our own emotions. Parents sometimes tell children what they think they should or shouldn�۪t feel. They override them. If they are sad, angry, hungry, cold, or upset, some parents tell them ���No, you aren�۪t,�۪ ���Don�۪t be sad,�۪ ���You have no reason to be angry,�۪ ���You should be hungry, eat!�۪ Telling children how they should feel is not letting them learn to self-regulate their own feelings. As parents, we have to give our children trust so that they can learn about their own emotional boundaries. This builds a stronger sense of self, which is paramount to self-esteem down the road. When they are older they will be less afraid to say ���no�۪ when their boundaries are pushed because they will trust themselves to make the right decision based on what they feel. This is such an important lesson to teach children. We can help them with the language use, but we need to trust them so they can trust themselves. Remember, there are no good or bad emotions. There are just emotions.�۝

Finally, what kind of stories can we read our children to help teach empathy?
���Read all kinds of stories to children, not only happy ones. Talking about difficult emotions in books can be a fantastic way to build empathy. Many Danish children�۪s books are shocking by American standards with the topics they cover, but studies have shown that reading about all emotions increases a child�۪s ability to empathize. The original Little Mermaid, which is a Danish story, doesn�۪t get the prince in the end, but rather dies of sadness and turns into sea foam. That opens up quite a different kind of discussion! But it is incredible how receptive children are. They want to talk about all kinds of things. It seems to be more difficult for adults sometimes than for children. Remember, they are mirroring our discomfort. If we talk about life�۪s peaks and valleys in a non-dramatic way, our children will be more resilient in the long run. Books are a great way to teach empathy.�۝

���Danes don�۪t over program their kids�۪ lives. Play is considered one of the most important things a kid can do (and learn from), even into high school. There is a big focus on the zone of proximal development, which means they respect children where they are at in their learning process and try to help them just enough so they don�۪t lose the joy in learning for themselves. This kind of learning���respecting the zone of proximal development���builds more self-esteem and resilience, and play facilitates this. In America, we often feel if our child isn�۪t doing something measurable, they must not be learning enough. But as Mr. Rogers said, ���For children, play is serious learning.'�۝

���Another difference: Danes actively teach empathy in school, starting in pre-school. It is as important as teaching Math or English. They ���keep it real.�۪ Everything doesn�۪t have to have a happy ending. Hans Christian Andersen�۪s fairytales (one of the most famous Danes) are often very dark or sad, but have been modified in America to fit a culturally accepted version. The original Little Mermaid, for example, doesn�۪t get the prince in the end. She dies of sadness and turns into sea foam. Reading books that deal with hard topics helps parents cover a wide range of emotions with their children and this has been proven to improve their empathy skills. I think sometimes in America we tend to avoid confronting the harder emotions if we can help it. In Denmark, they jump right into those! The books I have seen my husband read to my daughter have dropped my jaw at times, but I know it is good for her and she loves it!�۝

���Also, spanking became illegal in 1984 in Denmark. Danes use a diplomatic, avoiding ultimatums approach. As a result, they are a very non-violent culture. They focus on managing problems rather than disciplining them. And they have ���hygge��� as one of their highest and most important values as a cultural norm. That is: Cozy time where the focus is ���we�۪ not ���me.'�۝

What do you want people to take away from The Danish Way?
���The one thing we would really love for people to take away from the book is to question the way things are or ���our default settings�۪ as Americans. It is incredibly difficult to see how our culture shapes our values, our way of being, and even our way of raising kids (a.k.a. parental ethnotheories). These behaviours are so engrained in us we rarely question whether there is another way that might be better. We just assume we are doing things the right way. So, if people would truly reflect on this and try to implement even one pillar from The Danish Way���like hygge for example���we are convinced it will help the next generation be happier. It sounds like a lofty ideal, but being an American who has experienced The Danish Way firsthand, I have seen how powerful it can be.�۝

The Danish Way of Parenting: A Guide To Raising The Happiest Kids in the World, $12.99, Amazon.
Iben Sandahl and Jessica Alexander

What do you think? Are you actively teaching empathy to your children?
We would like to hear your suggestions so write in the comment section, Suggest a story, a game, a discussion, a TV programme, a film, or write anything that actively teaches empathy to a child.