Raising Happy and Healthy Multicultural Kids this New Year
With the start of a new decade comes a chance to build on what we are doing right and assess what we need to change and learn from each other. So, how do we help our multicultural kids to stay happy, healthy and balanced in a fast-paced globalized world? The Dutch way of bringing up children is a good starting point. Dutch kids are among the happiest in the world, according to a UNESCO study and a recent book entitled The Happiest Kids in the World: How Dutch Parents Help Their Kids by Doing Less. As an Indian American pediatrician, educator, and expat mother based in Amsterdam, I have learned quite a bit about the Dutch way of raising kids. Here are my top 5 tips for raising our happy and healthy multicultural kids in 2020 based on the Dutch approach to life and kids.
Allow kids time to play (and be bored)
Are your kids hurrying from one activity to another? Or do they have free time to chill every day in a way that doesn’t involve screens? When is the last time your child told you he or she was bored? When Dutch kids go out to play, they actually go outdoors most of the time. Their parents make sure that biking, running through the woods or a game of hide-and-seek isn’t overly orchestrated. Local schools have half days off on Wednesdays to allow kids to relax or play sports. On Fridays, school starts one hour later, so kids can catch up on sleep. Having moved from Hong Kong to Amsterdam, we have learned that it is ok to play Legos instead of extra tutoring or being ferried to a myriad of after school programs. In fact, research shows that boredom fosters creativity and self-sufficiency.
Tip #1: Let kids have adequate time for unstructured play or ‘chilling’ and resist overscheduling this year.
Without a doubt, language is a wonderful resource that multicultural kids can use to navigate cultures and stay connected to their own unique community. The Dutch have mastered the ability to speak more than one language well starting from an early age. To begin with, most of the movies and shows on TV are not dubbed in Dutch. Students study English along with German or French in school. Most Dutch teens and adults are comfortable conversing in more than one language and are encouraged to do so. Of course, as I have learned with my own Indian-American-German kids, it is not enough to hear a language. We need to ensure children speak back, watch shows, read books, take lessons, and surround themselves with others who use the language in engaging ways.
Tip #2: Take time to give the gift of language to your child.
Eat more fresh foods and stay active
It’s true that the Dutch use bikes as their main form of transportation. They cycle to school, work, and every activity in between – rain or shine. What’s more, the Dutch use their bikes to pick up their groceries for that day. Evening meals often come from visits to the baker, fresh fruit and vegetable stands, and perhaps the butcher or cheese shop. Of course, there are large grocery stores as well. However, there aren’t multiple aisles of packaged snacks and convenience foods that I so often see in my native US. The focus is on eating freshly prepared foods and staying active. How often do our kids get a meal from foods that aren’t full of preservatives and additives?
Tip #3: Cut back on highly processed and sugary foods and get kids moving every day. Doing so would be so beneficial for kids, especially given the incidence of obesity and overweight around the world.
Start talking about bodies, puberty and relationships early
When we first moved to the Netherlands, I was shocked to learn that the Nemo, our local children’s science museum, had an entire section on puberty including exhibits about what happens as you go through it such as the physiology of attraction. I later learned that this is part of a concerted effort to start sexual health education early. At home, Dutch parents tend to openly discuss bodily changes during puberty and sexual health. Sex education is mandatory in schools. Kids begin by 5-6 years old discussing feelings and knowing what is meant by good and bad touch. At the age of 7, sessions include understanding how to respect each other. By age 10-11, Dutch kids learn about changes during puberty. A big focus of the message for older kids is on positive relationships and maintaining open communication. In many other countries, unfortunately, the pervasive attitude is to avoid discussing bodies and relationships. The open and early approach both at home and in schools has distinct benefits: Dutch teens have some of the lowest rates of pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections among teens in Western countries.
Tip #4: Start the year with a discussion with your child or teen about your values in connection with their bodies. Use everyday moments like a movie or a show. If you don’t feel comfortable with this, have a trusted adult help you.
Allow kids to be independent and problem solve
Have you ever considered dropping your pre-teens or teens in the dead of the night in a thick forest and let them find their way home as a group or a pair, but without adults? Believe it or not, that’s exactly what the Dutch do. The take-home message from this concept of ‘dropping’ (which some may consider a somewhat controversial rite of passage) is that parents must allow kids to experience a challenge alone and problem-solve for themselves. Although I might not do this to my own kids, creating situations of real-life responsibility and allowing mastery are important ways to create confidence in their abilities. For my preteens, that is allowing them to take the trams and buses alone in the city.
Tip #5: Allow kids to have real-world experiences and let them learn from their experiences instead of helping them every step of the way.
Hopefully, through building in more creative playtime, embracing languages, focusing on staying active, eating less processed food, being open to discussions about bodies and healthy relationships, and allowing kids to be more independent, we can start a foundation for a healthy new year to come when it comes to raising happy and healthy multicultural kids.
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