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Last Updated: Wednesday, 14 February 2007, 18:26 GMT
Why are Dutch children so happy?
By Kathryn Westcott
BBC News website

Dutch children have been rated the most fortunate children in Europe. Their parents go out of their way to please them, and teachers expect less of them than some of their European counterparts.

Children playing in Amsterdam
Dutch society is very child-centred
The Netherlands has come top of a league table for child well-being across 21 industrialised countries.

The study by the UN children's organisation, Unicef, looked at relative poverty, educational and health standards, sexual behaviour and the children's relationship with friends and parents.

"The Netherlands has always been a very child-centred society," says Paul Vangeert, professor of developmental psychology at the University of Groningen. "In particular, there is a lot of focus on young children."

He says he is not surprised by the report. "On the one hand you have objective indicators in the report like health, income and education. The Netherlands is a very rich country. On the other hand, and perhaps more importantly, are the subjective indicators, young people's own subjective sense of well-being."

1. Netherlands
2. Sweden
3. Denmark
4. Finland
5. Spain
6. Switzerland
7. Norway
8. Italy
9. Republic of Ireland
10. Belgium
11. Germany
12. Canada
13. Greece
14. Poland
15. Czech Republic
16. France
17. Portugal
18. Austria
19. Hungary
20. United States
21. United Kingdom
Source: Unicef

Much of this, he says, comes from the relationship that Dutch parents have with their children. And, from the fact that less pressure is put on them at school.

"If you take the percentage of young mothers in the labour force, it's not very high in comparison to comparable countries," Mr Vangeert told the BBC News Website. "There is a strong tendency for mothers to raise children or take a long time off work after children are born."

He says children are used to a "highly protective, highly positive caring environment."

Children rule

One of the strong points of the Dutch family, he says, is that it is very open and communicative. Relations are generally good between parents and children and they can talk about almost anything.

But, he says, the downside is that children almost rule the family.

"It's almost a caricature that children are the ones that decide what happens within the family," says Mr Vangeert. "Their wishes become so strong that parents have to work very hard to give them what they want. Sometimes, there can be a lack of balance between the happiness of the child and that of the parent."

A child playing in a daffodil field in Noordwijkerhout
Relations between Dutch parents and their children are generally good
18-year-old Ysbrand, a student in Helmond near Eindhoven, says this picture matched his childhood. He says that his parents spent a lot of time with him when he was younger. His mother stayed at home while his father worked.

But, he said the contrast when you get to 18 can be something of a shock.

"Now I'm left to look after myself," he told the BBC News website. "My parents say that I need to care for myself and to be independent. It's hard. I don't have much money as a student and to go out is expensive. Beer, for example, is very expensive in the Netherlands."

He says that while he has been drinking and smoking for some time, his parents have never really seen it as a big issue.

"They've never liked it," he says. "But they realise that they were young once. They are just waiting for me to give it up in my own time."

The UK and the USA are too commercial and market driven
Kenneth Whyte, Oegstgeest, Netherlands

The Dutch are famous for their liberal attitudes towards drinks, drugs and sex.

"Because parents are more relaxed, the dynamics of the problems are less severe than in countries where they are seen as more of a serious issue," says Mr Vangeert.

Laura Vos, a 16-year-old schoolgirl from Amsterdam agrees.

"In this country, it's very free, you can do anything you want," she told the BBC's Newsnight programme. "You can smoke at 16, you can buy pot in the store next to the school. You can do what you like and because it's not illegal, it's not that interesting for us to provoke our parents with it."

Material well-being
Family and peer relationships
Health and safety
Behaviour and risks
Own sense of well-being [educational]
Own sense of well-being [subjective]

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Schoolfriend Michell Klimt told the BBC that she thought that teenagers in other countries had to deal with the type of peer pressure that her friends did not have to even consider.

"I think in England, for example, there is a lot of pressure on teenagers. There is something on MTV called Virgin Diaries. Girls of 16 and 17 worry because they are still virgins. It's like they have to have sex to be cool," she says.

"In Holland, it isn't that important - it doesn't matter to anyone."

Rutt Veenhoven, professor of social conditions for human happiness at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, says he was unsurprised by the report's findings.

"Small affluent countries such as the Netherlands and Denmark are very democratic and very free. There is also a very good education system. People can use that freedom and education to make the right choices," he says.

Selma el Maknouzi, a 16-year-old student from The Hague says young people in the Netherlands have a lot to look forward to.

"I'm very happy with the education here because it's at a very high level," she told the BBC News website. "Everybody has the chance and the opportunity to do whatever he or she wants to do. There are many jobs - everyone can work and there are opportunities to build a good career in later life."

Mr Veenhoven says that the general picture is pretty much in keeping with what he has seen in samples of the adult population. He says that typically in Western Europe countries like the Netherlands and Denmark score particularly well.

"And we know that happy adults raise happy children," he says.


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