Updated: Oct 2, 2019
My near on 3-year-old daughter walked into daycare yesterday. She had personally pieced together an outfit that ensembled rock-star tights, glitter silver socks, a pink shirt with a puppy and sparling stars on, and tied it all together with a denim skirt that just about fitted below her round belly. (these days we need to have either a dress or a skirt on top of everything...)
A stark contrast to the other children in the room, who all wore matching monochrome and pastels, woollen tights, white cotton shirts, hand-knitted jumpers, and light leather slippers.
As we washed our hands in the bathroom, the teacher came up to us and asked Siska whether she had dressed herself today. To which my daughter glowed from head to toe in pride.
As I said goodbye, the teacher took me aside and recommended 'a trick' that she did with her own daughter, which was to put the clothes she thought her child should wear on a shelf where she could reach - and hide the more 'offending' clothes higher up...
After 8 years of being both a mother and living in Denmark, I have acclimatised to these kinds of well-intended recommendations and take them with a firm shake of salt. After all, my children are growing up in one of the best social systems in the world and there are worse things to complain about than the 'subtle' implementation of a conformed dress-code.
I have a 3-year-old girl and a 7-year-old boy. Both have been born and raised in Denmark. Both speak Danish. My son attends a local, 'free' school which has just been awarded by UNESCO for its innovative and collaborative teaching methods, and my daughter had to wait until she was almost 2 years old to get into the daycare she now attends, which is a privilege many can afford with the generous parental, paid leave during maternity.
It's a paradox to live here and raise Danish kids as a non-Danish mother (Scottish/Polish/African). And although I too, speak the language, know the customs, have married a Dane & celebrate the socially-conscious system they so firmly install in their institutions - I am still not Danish and will never be able to raise my children accordingly.
Here are the ways I consciously choose to raise my children in Denmark, not as an expat woman, but as an immigrant married to a Dane. I want to give them all the social and health benefits available to them - but also make sure they; keep a piece of their individuality intact, learn about non-religious spirituality & see with their own eyes, the greater world that lies beyond the patriotic red and white flag.
Denmark has some incredible customs in raising their children, and so I have chosen what to keep within those customs - and what to let go of - because, like all cultures, there are paradoxes and conflicts to what happens to these customised-children when they grow up.
I hope this inspires some new ideas into your home and family practices and reminds you that you too, can choose what customs to nurture in your children - as well as what you want to install in them yourself.
1. SOCIAL CONSCIOUSNESS
The good - Denmark installs, from a very young age, the idea that everyone is equal. There is no segregation in class due to grades or achievements - everyone has to work together, with each other and resolve conflicts fast. Even in daycare, the focal point of all integration happens at a social level. How does this child interact with this other child? How is the group dynamic? Does everyone mix and integrate equally?
There is no 'learned-material' in daycare and elementary school starts at 7 years old, where the introduction to learning through social interaction is prioritised. This means that Denmark has one of the highest-regarded social-care systems in the world.
Many people land up working in hospitals and private care homes. They look after each other, they care for each other and many people, including myself, live in community-apartments in central Copenhagen, where we share the mortgage on the building, rather than the individual home.
Denmark is the founding nation of the commune and many still exist in the countryside today. We have visited many as potential homes and with the combination of nature, shared child-care, community work/gardening days - it is the closest we have come to raise our children in a 'tribe' but have decided that we cannot put our income into a shared system, so it is not entirely for us.
The bad - It feels sometimes like a false positive to live among an inclusive society who is still very exclusive towards immigrants and the LGBT community. I work for a non-profit that deals with the problems of integration in Denmark (immart.dk) and I find the greatest problem throughout Denmark is acceptance. There are even some members in the immart community who are local Danes who feel their differences ridiculed in their home-land.
Although there is much social awareness for others, there is little for one's own introspective self. Little question is made to one's nature and the mystery of life in this increasingly secular state. Religion is very unspoken of in Denmark and almost shameful if you were to bring up one's beliefs in public. You pay church tax and baptise your children in a communal service, but have very little to do with the church as a spiritual sanctuary.
Conclusion - I take the goodness of social consciousness, the beauty of working together, in spite of difference - but I will install the 'mystery of life' and introspective thought in my own children. For if they do not know themselves, how will they ever know the world around them?
2. NATURAL LIVING
The good - Literally my favourite custom of living in Denmark is its approach to natural living. Not only in terms of lack of over-the-counter medication and truthful speech, but also in terms of getting out in the weather - no matter what.
This natural way of living is ingrained into everything the Danes do and impacts children in the most positive ways.
My son, at 3 years old, was given a carving knife for his birthday. A custom passed down from his father, grandfather and beyond. Would you ever consider doing the same? I wouldn't in any other country because what comes with the knife is the tradition of learning responsibility. Children are made responsible for themselves early on and are not 'nannied' into comfort.
Plastic toys are seen as secondary to the wooden, sturdy, 'real' toys and quality trumps quantity every time. Children, therefore, tend to have a learned-respect for their belongings and take great care for them.
Children often make their own entertainment outside and spend ample amounts of time in nature, whatever the weather. "There is no such thing as bad weather - just bad clothes" is ingrained as a mantra here and children are equipt with 'snow-suits,' thermals and robust shoes to keep them warm and dry.
There is a little option for varied foods in supermarkets and everything is usually seasonal and organic. I say this is a good thing because the health standards are so high here that little is 'let in' without meeting the rigorous health requirements, so you know you are eating clean at least. There is almost no choice for frozen food and microwaves are almost non-existent in kitchens. You have to make everything from scratch. Again, good and bad depending on your point of view.
The Danes have a very natural truth to the way they speak to their children. It is honest, plain and very straight forward but also kind and compassionate. I love the way my husband speaks to my children and he has a patience that I see in many parents here.
The bad - I see little harm in natural living but I do find it hard to see my daughter fitting in with her love for pink, sparkle, plastic and all kinds of exciting paraphernalia from her Nana in the U.K. There is also little fantasy here in children in favour of being painfully honest with kids. The tooth fairy, Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny....well, we might be one of the very few parents who encourage the use of fantasy as a means of personal creativity here.
As I am born and raised in the Southern Hemisphere, I also find it hard, no matter the amount of 'hygge' in Winter, to deal with the bad weather and have to physically push myself to go outside when there hasn't been a break in the clouds for days. My husband very articulately expresses his definition of the over-hyped word for 'Hygge' as - "The means in which Scandinavians have avoided a mass-suicide in Winter" - reflecting on the point that Finland has one of the highest-rated suicide among young people in Northern Europe. There is again a paradox in the 'happiest people' with their cosy customs resulting in isolation and hopelessness.
Conclusion - I take the natural, wholesome nature of life here, the use of speech and organic living but install my own sense of fantasy and wonder in my own children.
The good - I can't say I'm a fan of any type of conformity and what I write about most is how to break away from it. I have never lived in a society more conformed as Denmark...and Sweden is apparently worse.
But perhaps there is good in it when what you conform to is good.
Good healthcare. Good school-standards. Good social practices. Well-rounded and inclusive kids. Strong local customs that everyone bonds over. These are all the conformities that could be much worse in other countries.
The bad - I just can't wear black every day. I am perhaps a little like my daughter... and celebrating difference in the confines of conformity is a big paradox here. Social groups are so tight it is barely possible to break into new friendships. The transformation my husband and I made last year has been a very alternative concept here with little support - making it a swim upstream in all social context.
Conforming to certain ideas of life is common here with the 'ideal life' being one of an (extortionately expensive) close to Copenhagen, two high-paying corporate jobs, branded luxuries and social status ranking at the top of achievements. There is also, again, little thought to the wider world consciousness and even here, many people still don't separate their trash into recyclables. Until it becomes a governmental implementation, many people choose to stay unaware of the problems that affect non-Denmark. There is little individual thought towards the outside world and people only start making changes when it is part of their national conformity.
Conclusion - I take the good things worth conforming to as all cultures have certain standards and Denmark at least has an exceptional standard. But I choose to install a great sense of personal identity in my kids by teaching them about individual thought, alternative lifestyles and travel so they may find purpose in a perspective away from Denmark.
The good - My life changes with minimalism. Not in the de-cluttering movement - but in the foundational beliefs I held about owning a lot of useless 'stuff'- Minimalism is the greatest export of Scandinavia and each of the Scandinavian states has their own nuance to the concept.
Denmark is very traditionally minimalist with natural light and design being the focal point. In Sweden, it is much more folk-like with wallpaper and clean surfaces, exaggerating fabric and textures. Norway has a very rustic minimalist approach, with heavy, dark wooden buildings and sparse, wild nature infiltrating their home design.
All concepts rely on the foundation that 'less is more'. And subtle is queen.
In terms of children, this applies too. Less t.v, more creating. Less junk-food, more healthy fats. There is a good amount of respect for quality at a young age and my husband is made up of all these incredibly robust beliefs about woollen clothing, wooden furniture and quality relationships (Wood. Wool. & Wife, he likes to call it)
The bad - Relating to conformity, there is a serious lack of identity and 'love' in many homes in Denmark. Many homes look like they have been intricately designed according to a magazine, with little unique or personal touches.
Conclusion - I take all minimalism has to offer and give this as a vital gift to my kids. But I also keep the bohemian in us all by painting our walls, decorating our rooms with individual tastes (see this journal entry here for more on surviving harsh environments & how to keep life simple and potent)
A few weeks ago, I treated my son to a can of Coke on the one day it is socially correct to offer your kids sweets (fredagsslik). As we walked down the road, enjoying the sunshine, sipping our cola a little girl ran up to my son and asked him excitedly in Danish, "What's that?!" pointing at the can. As I was about to answer, her father rushed in and pulled her arm away without looking at us, exclaiming it was "something she would never try in her life because it would kill her"...
Humour, that's one self-customized skill I'm strengthening on a daily basis here at least.
Comment below if this resonated with you and where you live!
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