The water in Denmark is full of calcium. But beyond the lime-scale, there seems to be something else in the water here. Something that if I could isolate and bottle, I would be rich beyond measure. I would be lauded and invited to appear on Oprah. I could buy that pair of boots I am still dreaming of. Because the Danes, in addition to having the voluminous scarf and messy top knot market covered, have really well-behaved kids. Like Upstairs/Downstairs Victorian seen-and-not-heard kids. When they are at home or in public places, they are quiet and reserved and well….behaved.
Chances are if you see a toddler having a meltdown in a Danish supermarket, it’s not a Danish child. Kicking the back of the seat on the S tog? Foreigner. On the receiving end of a finger wag and a talking to? Most likely American. And I have never, not once in the time we have been here, seen the type of writhing on the floor temper tantrum in the middle of Toys R Us that I always assumed was part and parcel of shopping at Toys R Us. You know what I’m talking about. Most of us have been there. Not so the Danes.
Maybe it is their Viking heritage. These folks are hardy. As infants they are wheeled outside in their SUV sized prams to sleep for 3 hours at a time, in all weather, wrapped up like little woolen sausages. They camp and whittle as soon as they can walk. They are riding two-wheelers by 3, holding their own in the Autobahn that is the Danish bike lane. They learn how to sail and kayak independently starting at age 5. As adults they swim in the sea year round, naked. And it’s true, when out-of-doors, Danish children let their pillaging history shine through. Watch them on the playground and it’s a cross between Lord of the Flies and Survivor. Outside home and school, Danish children are left to their own devices. These devices usually involve beating one another with sticks and kicking each other down slides and otherwise getting out all the aggression that is kept in check at home. They scream and shout and climb trees and wield sticks and generally act like the small savages most children are at heart. Adults in charge turn a blind eye, sipping coffee on a bench. But when it’s time to go, to head back to school or home, they line up like little ducks in a row. There’s no Miss Clavel, but they are lined up all the same. In two straight lines in rain or shine.
Our lovely Danish neighbors have three children, two of whom are boys. We almost never, ever hear them. Even when my children aren’t misbehaving I’m convinced the Swedes can hear them. There’s crashing of cars and flying of ships and knees on hardwood floors, rifling through Lego (shudder) and very, very loud statements of the 652 rules that are involved in any kind of pretend play. Perhaps the walls are thicker than I think, but I doubt it. What I really think is that cultural expectations differ. In Denmark there is an expectation that when indoors or around adults children are to act accordingly and respectfully and be quiet and reserved. And while I have expectations of my own children, they aren’t the same ones. Though on some level it is an individual parenting issue, I’m not talking about the difference between neighbors, but the differences between cultures.
In Denmark, the collective is valued above the individual. Though importance is placed on the family, parenting itself seems to be pretty hands-off, more Pony Express than high-tech helicopter. In almost every way, it is the polar opposite of current American parenting trends. These are kids that wield sharp instruments and sail small vessels alone at age 6. Independence is encouraged, but individuality is not. Somehow these cultural views trickle down to the behavior expected of the pre-school set. Perhaps it really is the water. Perhaps they are so overdressed in snow suits and long underwear that they don’t have the freedom of movement to protest. But whatever it is, Danish children seem to know, from birth, that there is a certain time and place for being loud and running. And that place is never indoors.
There is a flip side to this of course. Though restraint can often be seen as a valued trait, especially at the dinner table, openness and conversation encourage inquisitiveness. And when curiosity is roused, standards and norms are questioned and challenged. The Danish way is not one of self promotion because promoting one’s self would be seen as trying to stand out from the pack, something discouraged in parts of Scandinavia. As an American, where you are raised to do everything in your power to stand out, to be noticed, to shine bright, this can be a difficult thing to grasp. I’m sure there are some old-fashioned Danes that look upon my children in horror, but my children’s American cultural values are as built into them as Søren and Rikke’s are into them.
Of course I would like my children to be more polite at times, to be quieter on a Saturday morning, less fidgety, to walk and not run down a busy Copenhagen sidewalk. But I also want them to feel free to question, to ask, to inquire, to seek. I want them to value both the whole and the parts.
There is no visible dividing line between good and bad, right and wrong, black and white. It is fitting that in Denmark, where the sun hasn’t made an appearance for a while now, we should be navigating these shades of gray.