Does Denmark have a recipe for a better parenting life?
Well, being a Dane myself, it can be difficult for me to really say as I can't see the forest for all the trees. I'm all soaked and covered in 'Danishness'.
But for an American, for Jessica Joelle Alexander, the Danish way of parenting was intrinsically different from what she knew back home. So different that she had to reframe everything she knew about parenting.
On an overall level, this parenting interview is basically about choice; about what can happen to you as a person and parent if you choose to remain open, humble and self-reflective when facing a new culture and different ways of raising children.
Seeing yourself from the outside when getting away from your own culture and being confronted with new ways of e.g. relating with with people, of dealing with emotions and cultural taboos can be very frightening and upsetting for your beliefs.
But if you choose to be open and receptive, it may lead to intense self-reflection and consequently a powerful mindset change; a new way of being with yourself and perceiving the world, and if you have children, a better way of parenting, too.
In this parenting interview I have been so lucky to have parenting expert and speaker Jessica Joelle Alexander answer all my questions regarding her insights into what she learned when meeting the 'foreign and strange' Danish mindset on parenting.
So stay tuned for Jessica's thought-provoking insights delivered with a personal voice of unpretentious honesty and mindful clarity.
Below you will find some of the parenting themes Jessica will provide insights into when explaining how to lead a more joyous and simply better parenting life:
If you are curious about what Jessica has to say about these parenting questions and how her honest, self-reflective answers may lead to a better parenting world for both and parents, please continue down this article.
And now, while you're at it, you might want to grab cup of coffee or tea. This is not a short 'how-to' article - it's a journey of discovery. And if you're really lucky, self-discovery! But that is all up to you! ;-)
Before diving into the parenting interview on better
parenting, here is
a little intro to Jessica to help you get to know her a little
bit better before we start.
Jessica Joelle Alexander is an author, speaker and parenting expert
with a unique cultural focus on Danish parenting seen from the eyes
of an American.
Jessica Joelle Alexander is American born and raised but left the States and married a Dane and has lived in Denmark for a number of years and is the mother of two children.
You can read more about Jessica
on her website
or on Twitter or
I'm sure Jessica had a number cultural shocks meeting the Danish culture and living in Denmark but one of the things that really made a profound impression on her was how the Danish children seemed to behave compared to what she was used to back home. So much so that she told her husband something along the lines of, 'if he could promise they could have a Danish child, she would have children with him tomorrow'.
Jessica's parenting journey raising children according to 'the Danish way' has resulted in a very popular parenting book called The Danish way of parenting: what the happiest people in the world know about raising confident, capable kids.
Jessica has written the book with a Dane Iben Dissing Sandahl who is a narrative psychotherapist, coach and author.
I think I first noticed Jessica on Twitter but I might be wrong as I also noticed her several other places online e.g. on Facebook, in newspapers and even in a great BBC interview.
Jessica caught my attention initially was because she was
writing about Danish parenting and how that to her was a
better parenting style than many other ways of parenting.
Now being a Dane myself that seemed extremely interesting. It's always fun and educational being looked at from the outside; it sets things into perspective.
And of course I was
curious as to what is it we Danes seem be doing that is
different and apparently a better parenting way than what
Jessica is used to.
So I thought, I have simply have to talk to Jessica! I've really got to hear more about this 'mysterious' way where the Danes seem to have got it all right when it come to having a better parenting life.
So I contacted her and asked her if I could make a written parenting interview with her. She so kindly and quickly responded that she was all up for it and the article you will read here is the result.
What is the first specific memory you have of Danish parenting where you thought, 'Hmm ... Something different is going on here?'
What happened, what did you notice and why do you think it made such an impression on you?
Well, probably the first thing I noticed was the calmness and lack of discipline. Spanking has been illegal in Denmark for over 20 years and they have a very democratic approach to parenting. You almost never hear yelling. They are very calm and as a result the kids are too.
My husband and I talked about this a lot. I came from a strict, authoritarian family and I couldn’t understand how you could educate without being strict.
But I learned, through this philosophy, that you absolutely
can raise kids in a different way that maintains the closeness and
trust and keeps their personal dignity intact. It’s a very
respect based approach that works.
You mention that the Danish parenting philosophy rests on some important pillars of basic values such as e.g. empathy, free play, no ultimatums, 'hygge' etc..
I know it is probably difficult for you to do so, but if I were to force you to mention the one that has been most transforming to you personally as a parent, which one would it be and why?
Gosh, that’s difficult because they really all have changed my life as a parent.
Perhaps the biggest one that transformed me as a person is easier to answer. That would be reframing.
Learning how to find less negative details and be aware of
my language about myself, and others and how that changes the way
you feel has been life changing. I have been able to change
the way I view myself, my kids, my family, my work stresses and it
is truly an extraordinary skill.
In your experience which parenting insight (or pillar) in the
book has been most valuable or transforming for your readers and why
do you think that is?
That’s also really difficult to say because so many have been touched by different things.
I think hygge has been a big one. [Wikipedia defines hygge as "a form of everyday togetherness", "a pleasant and highly valued everyday experience of safety, equality, personal wholeness and a spontaneous social flow"]
Hygge has also really changed my American family dynamics for the better so I can attest to it working.
However, I think in the big picture - the no ultimatums chapter is a big one. I know a lot of parents have stopped spanking as a result of the book and this is transforming for everyone, the parents, the children and our future society.
I think that is one of the transformations I am most proud of. As I
say in the book….if it changed me, I knew it could change anyone and
judging from the responses from readers worldwide, it has made many
reflect and change.
I understand it so that one of the most eye-opening things for you in the Danish family tradition is the cultivation of 'hygge'.
You have termed the feeling of hygge as a form of 'we-fulness'. What is this 'we-fulness' to you and what is its connection to its 'concept sister', mindfulness, which is so popular these days?
So many books have come out on hygge but I believe my perspective as a foreigner living with hygge for so many years is hitting the real crux of why it works (and how it works for non Danes) for more happiness.
It is so much more than candles and a cozy atmosphere. Hygge is a psychological safe space where no one needs to put their guard up. It’s a joint effort from the whole family to be present in the moment together with no complaining, gossiping, controversial topics, bragging etc.
It’s not “me time” it’s “we time”. You are there to be in the moment with the group in a pleasant way.
The reason I call it we-fulness is because I feel, in a way, it’s more powerful than mindfulness. It feels good to be with the ones you love connected and with no need to ever feel defensive. It’s recharging for the body and soul.
It is so simple but the payoff is enormous and its children who benefit the most. They love this drama free time with their family. And the hope is that they grow up to do this naturally so it becomes a wonderful legacy to pass on.
Is there such a thing as a Danish and American way of looking at and dealing with emotions?
For instance if you were to look at an emotion as a metaphor - what would a Danish and an American metaphor for a hard/negative/though emotion be?
I am not sure I totally understand the question but I would say that Danes don’t see any emotion as bad or unwelcome. An emotion is just an emotion, like colors on a color wheel. Red is no better than blue just like sadness is not worse than happiness. They just are.
And because of this acceptance kids are better able to self regulate and trust their emotions without judgment. They are more resilient and empathic.
Life’s ups and downs don’t topple them. We have the tendency to only want happiness in the U.S. so people can't feel bad if they feel bad. But if you think of it as the color wheel, we could ask….when did happiness become the only acceptable emotion?
your view how does this way of dealing with or looking at emotions
For me, it’s been about being more accepting of all emotions and instead of trying to fix it when they are sad or upset or whatever, I try to help them identify their emotions and let them come up and go on their own.
I understand it so that you have a fascination with Danish stories and fairy tales partially because they don't always end well - at least not in the traditional sense of a happy ending. Rather, the endings are often very open or ambiguous with no tie-ups.
What does such an open or 'I don't know' ending do to you now and what do you think is good about this when it comes to children?
It opens up the most amazing conversations with my kids, and honestly, with myself. I think what is so powerful about the Danish Way of Parenting is how much it makes you reflect on yourself as a person and a parent.
I have had to talk about death and sex and unhappy endings in a non-dramatic way and this has made me go in the mirror and talk to myself. I know that sounds strange but I kind of had to prepare myself to talk about something that in my family would not have been ok.
But the connection that it creates and the wonderful questions kids ask is just amazing. I am so proud of myself for doing it because I know it creates more awareness, resilience (not so many shocks from the reality of life) and empathy.
We explore sadness, and ambiguity and unpleasant situations together. Kids can handle so much more than adults give them credit. But it’s often the parents that have to be ok with it first.
I think most parents like it best when they can give their child straight answers. But sometimes there are things we just don't know. We can have a feeling about it, we can guess, but we really actually don't know.
What do you do under such circumstances e.g. when your children want to know about death or illness etc. Why do you say what you say and how do your children respond?
Well I read a couple of Danish stories about death with my daughter. And we watch some Danish kids shows too about death. I wrote an article for TIME about this here.
We can always answer their questions even when we don’t know. Death
is a natural part of life. Kids can handle that if we describe it
calmly. Reading and talking about death with my kids
(bizarrely) has made me feel much more gratitude. For them, it
really wasn’t a big deal.
I have heard you describe the American culture as a very competitive culture, an 'I win culture', where everything (and children, too) are measured according to various academic or career orientated standards.
In your own experience, what happens to a child when it lives under and adopts such an 'achiever' mindset? What happens to their experience of themselves and to our experiences of our child?
I think it makes us fundamentally insecure. If you are always competing to be better well, you can’t be the best all the time, but you can be better than yourself. Danes focus a lot on competing with themselves and being better for their own sake, not to beat someone else. This builds a much stronger inner core where you don’t need others to validate your accomplishments.
Humility, in a way, is real confidence and it’s so nice to be around. Competition is dividing, it’s not uniting. And that feeling of connectedness to others (not competing) is what brings real happiness.
It took me years to get out of that cultural norm of competition and to be ok with myself for my own betterment. Again, it’s just very tied to our culture - many don’t even see it. It’s like hygge to the Danes. It’s so engrained they don’t realize it is different.
But I think we would be happier as a people if we moved away from the expression of “if you don’t toot your own horn, no one else will”. Isn’t it nicer to care about how nice the person is than to hear their horn tooting?
Could you perhaps explain in more intuitive terms what this
means and feels like? Also are there certain thoughts or feelings
that we can learn to see as alarm bells of separation and is there a
simple step towards starting to reverse such a competitive mindset?
I think I answered it above. It’s natural to put your guard up if you feel someone is competing with you. It’s much more connecting, for example, to be vulnerable or not to brag.
What do you do in real life when you have a powerful 'default parenting setting' but you now know that there is a better way but, alas, you're tired, overwhelmed or stressed and the default setting is so easy and tempting to fall back on?
What have you done yourself to override your own default setting in the heat of the moment?
I haven’t. I have screwed up and been the parent I didn’t want to be more times than I am proud of. But in learning about empathy, the biggest lesson I have learned is to first have empathy for ourselves. I forgave myself because I am human and I will try harder. We aren’t perfect, we will screw up and make mistakes but that’s part of the journey.
As long as you are aware and keep heading for a bigger goal, then I think that’s the most powerful thing any of us can do. But we have to be forgiving of ourselves first and foremost.
And I am not afraid to apologize to my kids when I screw up either. I want them to know that I am human too. This vulnerability is connecting and it’s also a great lesson that kids see us making mistakes and amending them.
part of your own default setting was the most difficult to override?
My authoritarian upbringing. When my son was three (that was a challenging year) and I was really tired and stressed, the default setting would be to spank as my parents did.
This is why I have so much empathy for anyone who grew up in a spanking family. It’s a really hard habit to break because it comes so naturally if that was what you grew up with.
I can honestly say I have never ever spanked my kids (I was very determined not to) but I did scream a couple of times and yank his arm. We were driving and it was a dangerous situation but still, I felt awful and so mad at myself for losing control. How could I ask him to control himself if I threw a tantrum myself? I think any parent can relate to times where they were just so desperate they acted out.
The first rule of thumb in Danish parenting is to control yourself, and I didn’t on several occasions. But I got home and went into a room to calm down. Then I sat down with him and apologized and we talked about what had happened in the car and reconnected. And I was determined to be better after that. And I did.
Is there still one thing you are conscious about wanting to override? If yes, how are you working on it (if you are)?
I always work on empathy because it is a skill we can grow at any age. It is also tied to reframing so being able to find meaning behind behaviour instead of labeling negatively.
I work on this regularly and try to be aware of it. I feel this is really what makes us better people and helps us make our kids better people. And the truth is, it also feels a lot better than the opposite.
My relationships have improved and I am just generally better at
finding a more positive storyline. I think empathy and
reframing will be skills I’ll work on for life. They are definitely
tied to more wellbeing.
If you had a parenting 'motto' or quote to live by for a better
parenting life, what would it
“Teach respect, be respectful and you will be respected"
This wonderful, simple quote for a better parenting life marks the end of this parenting interview with Jessica Joelle Alexander coauthor of The Danish Way of Parenting.
I really hope you enjoyed it and if it made you reflect on something in yourself, how wonderful for you. I wish you the very best with your new (and old) thoughts and insights.
Your Positive Parenting Ally,
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Being a parent can feel like a double-edged sword. Life with kids may feel like the greatest gift you have ever received, while at the same being hugely challenging, often leaving you confused, stressed and overwhelmed.
When we feel like this, we've lost touch with ourselves. We can't hear our own inner voice, and it's difficult to know what is 'right' for us and how to act.
I offer in-depth parent coaching to help you regain your balance and get back in touch with yourself. From a place of inner peace and clarity, your will find your own answers which will help you reconnect with your child from a place of unconditional love and acceptance.
Read more about my parent coaching here.
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