Picture the scene. Two three-year-olds in the middle of the playground, fists flying, tears streaming down their scrunched-up faces. On the sidelines, their mothers look over, assess the situation and then turn back to their conversation. All the while, the wind howls and the rain lashes down, soaking them to the skin. Welcome to parenting, Danish style.
"Danish babies nap in their prams outside in the snow so rain's nothing," laughs Danish mother-of-two, Anna Riis Kaargaard, when I tell her what I saw in a Danish playground. "We Danes love nature and we prefer our children spend a lot of time outside - all it takes is the right clothing." As for the dispute? "If I witness my daughter having a disagreement with another child, I try and let them sort it out themselves. If it crosses a line, I would definitely stop it, but I think it's important for them to react on their own."
While this hands-off parenting might be a shock to the system for mothers in Dubai, where snow is a distant memory at best, and children's squabbles are resolved quickly by either parents or nannies; there might be something in the Danish way. Denmark is consistently ranked in the top three world's happiest countries (in a survey by the United Nations it took top spot in 2012, 2013 and 2016 before being toppled by its Norwegian neighbor in 2017) and is widely recognized as being one of the best places in the world to raise children. Its mothers are entitled to a year's paid maternity leave, to be split with the baby's father as they choose, and can rely on top-class state-funded childcare when they return to work. Oh and a recent survey by the Journal of Paediatrics found that Danish babies even cry less than other babies. They must be doing something right.
Luckily while, geographically and climatically, Denmark might be another world, (their temperatures plummet to minus figures at this time of year and they actually look forward to their summers), there are still some universal parenting principles to take home from the Danish way of doing things:
Don't sweat the small stuff
"I guess everybody worries a bit about how their lives will change when their baby is born, but in Denmark circumstances reduce the panic I think," Anna Riis Kaargaard tells me when I talk to her about anxiety in pregnancy and the early days of motherhood. "Paid maternity leave makes having a baby manageable from a financial point of view and our education and healthcare is free, which makes having a child less stressful."
I think back to the way I coddled my pregnancy and the sums my husband and I sat up into the night doing, to see how feeding, clothing and educating our unborn child would affect our quality of life and I feel chastened. Because if there's one thing every nation agrees on, it's the impact of stress on a child. "Children learn through experience and particularly by observing those closest to them," says clinical psychologist Dr Rose Logan of the LighthouseArabia when I ask her about the impact of stress on young children. "When you are calm and relaxed you are teaching them how to deal with the world."
Don't be afraid to take time out for yourself
Taking time to relax is a huge part of the way Danish women approach motherhood. Similar to the way flight safety videos instruct us to attend to our own oxygen masks before dealing with our dependents, Danish women aren't afraid to put their own needs first and experts agree there's something to be said for taking the aeroplane oxygen approach.
"Small children demand a lot and it's easy to neglect both yourself and your relationship," says Dr Logan. "Finding a balance can be hard but it is essential."
"We need to teach UAE mothers the value of taking care of themselves," agrees Joanne Jewell, educator and founder of Mindful Parenting. "Generations of people have grown up believing taking care of yourself is selfish or bad - but it's about finding a balance. Taking care of yourself doesn't have to mean hours. When my children were smaller, I used to sit in my car for ten minutes doing a breathing exercise when I got home - just to give myself that separation."
Read more Why mums need to be more selfish
It takes two to tango - and to parent
It's easier to relax when parenting is a two-person project and the shorter working week in Denmark (37 hours) and shared parental leave mean dads can be hands-on there in a way that the day-to-day stresses of Dubai, with its non-existent paternity leave and limited maternity leave (employees in the private sector get just 45 days, while those working in the public sector are entitled to 60 days) don't allow.
"Danish women aren't afraid to put their own needs first - we need to teach UAE mothers the value of taking care of themselves"
"We share our year of maternity leave and Danish mums will usually continue their career after a year of maternity leave, which makes mums and dads more equal," says Anna Riis Kaargaard, while Danish resident and British author of My Year of Living Danishly, Helen Russell writes amusingly of the "bearded Viking" dads she encountered at nursery (known as a 'vuggestue') pick up and drop off. But there's a serious side effect of this focus on fatherhood. Men who take parental leave tend to have better relationships with their children, according to a Swedish study, while Joanne Jewell emphasises the importance of both parents being involved with their children. "It's about understanding each parent has something different to bring to the relationship," she says. And although it's impossible to magic up more maternity and paternity leave, Dr Logan suggests "setting aside time for yourself and your relationship" to pave the way to sharing the load, while Joanne Jewell recommends letting your husband and partner focus on his own relationship with the kids, rather than trying to parent him too. Either that, or consider emigrating to Denmark!
Stuff and nonsense
And you might be tempted to make that move before your little one's birthday, because Danes also refuse to be drawn into the Kardashian-style birthday extravaganzas that form one of the biggest parental pressure points for Dubai-based mums and dads. Preferring activities to acquisitions, children in Denmark have their birthday parties thrown for them by their nurseries, negating the need for their parents to keep up with the Joneses - or should that be the Jensens? Parents can provide snacks for the class, but crucially no presents. "There's no social one-upmanship about whose parents have hired the hottest kids' entertainer or trumped their peers with the best party bag in Denmark," writes Helen Russell. "It's just a ninja birthday squad - in and out." Meanwhile in Dubai, "parents complain their children have too much stuff," says Joanne Jewell. "We're stifling their imagination."
State schools encourage independence - but you can too In any discussion about Danish parenting, subsidised state education looms large. From six months old, every child is guaranteed a place in a state nursery, while 97% of children aged three to five are in daycare. Although fees vary, parents can pay around Dh1,100 a month for a full-time place, with a hefty discount for siblings. In addition to being significantly cheaper than a nursery place in Dubai, the Danish syllabus is completely different - with Danish parliament set to vote on a bill to enshrine a child's right to play as part of learning throughout nursery and kindergarten. "The Danish pedagogy is based on character-building and self-esteem," says Copenhagen-based educator Conni Nielsen. In her vuggestue (nursery), there's a fire pit in the extensive grounds and children are taught knife skills at the age of four. "We give them responsibility for tasks corresponding to their age and show trust and faith in them."
"We teach our children to be independent," agrees mother-of-one Pernille Herngaard, who moved back to her native Denmark to have children after being brought up in Dubai. "It's in our culture to guide our children to do things themselves. It makes them proud of their accomplishments, even if it's just putting a sock on." In Denmark it won't be a matching sock - their individualist approach eschews school uniforms. "I don't believe any school in Denmark has a school uniform," says Anna Riis Kaargaard. "Personally I don't believe uniforms for small children make much sense. We prefer for our children to learn through play outside than to sit down in a uniform for 3-4 hours a day."
"Numerous studies have shown that children growing up in the US and UK are missing out on the full-throttled fun of being a kid because they're so micro-managed and swaddled in cotton-wool," argues Helen Russell, in an analysis that could equally apply to Dubai. "[They're] protected from dirt and dust and grazed knees and stuck inside on iPads instead. But for kids living Danishly, there's more of a Famous Five meets Swallows and Amazons approach to childrearing. And the kids appear to be thriving on it."
Photos by Istock