Sacchi Sandal White Adams Fisherman Men's Stacy wnRYxE4qZx

Less pressure to ‘achieve’, multiple languages and cycling everywhere - our kids love it

Margaret Kearns with her husband and four children in Amsterdam, where the family have lived for six years.

 

Several recent reports have found that Dutch teens are among the happiest in the world, and having lived here for almost six years with my family, I have to concur.

When we arrived here, we had no idea how it would unfold: moving abroad with a family and no social support, to a new culture, new language and new country. We thought we would stay for three to five years, travel and have new family experiences. As it turns out, it’s a hard place to leave. So, here we are, six Amsterdammers now: four fluent Dutch speakers and two parents who are… getting there.

My teens attend a Gymnasium, a type of school that offers only a pre-university track. When they receive their final year diploma, they will have entry to almost all university courses in the Netherlands. Virtually all schools are publicly funded, books are free, there are frequent trips and no fund-raisers; all excellent news for parents.

They love their school and growing up in Amsterdam, and here are some reasons why.

Cycling culture

Cycling to your school is ubiquitous, about as common as bread and cheese for lunch, and three kisses for greeting a fond friend. Biking alone to school begins when kids are as young as 10 or 11. When secondary school comes along, kids cycle independently. Building exercise into a teen’s day helps keep them fit, regulates their mood, and arguably toughens them up a little. Dutch kids cycle on average 2,000km a year. It’s probably more than that for my kids and many others who cycle literally everywhere: to school, friends’ houses, after school clubs, swimming, cinema and so on --every day of the year, rain, hail and snow.

Bikes are king in the Netherlands where most people have two (usually second-hand) and all journeys under 2km are taken on two wheels. The infrastructure is so firmly in the favour of cyclists that my kids can get to school via bike lanes 90 per cent of the time. Everyone cycles, car-owners also bike regularly, so there is mutual respect on the road.

Autonomy

Kids here are expected and encouraged to be responsible for their own learning, guided by parents and teachers when necessary. There is no shame in repeating a year. It is fairly common and the view is taken that a child isn’t ready socially/emotionally/academically, as opposed to not being good enough. It’s delightfully called “doubling’’ a year, not “repeating” a year, a totally different emphasis. Teenagers are trusted to make decisions and then learn from inevitable mistakes. After all, nothing ventured, nothing gained. They are given an incredibly large window of freedom that has gradually expanded since they were four years old. Children in the Netherlands are not only seen, but expected to be seen and heard.

It’s a good life: from school parties starting at 10pm until 2am (that was a shock) to co-educational classrooms, no uniforms, open dialogue with parents around sexuality and adolescence, a musical and creative school atmosphere, helpful classmates and good teachers. The focus at school is to encourage motivation from within, rather than extrinsic motivation. Dutch children are seen as autonomous and not a reflection of their parents--this of course has obvious benefits for when your small kid throws an almighty tantrum, or says an emphatic no to a playdate. No offence is taken, people shrug in acceptance, and parents neither bask in the glow of shame or pride. As an Irish mum parenting teenagers in Dutch society, I’ve taken on a similar attitude, and it really helps when most parents around you are following similar methods.

Life balance

Adjusting to homework in secondary school is a steep learning curve, coming from Dutch primary school where there is practically none, but step by step it works out. There is zero expectation to burn the midnight oil on studies. No kudos are awarded for working so hard that your social life suffers. Instead of aiming for top scores and little downtime, teenagers are encouraged to keep their friends, social lives and hobbies. On the weekends, they will do a couple of hours study, but there is plenty of free time. Travel time to school is kept to a minimum so there are more hours in the day.

Sleeping in on Saturday mornings is their most recently acquired life skill, while Sundays are for sports, general lolling about, and family stuff. One strong aspect of Dutch society is to aim for a balanced life, and the general culture of taking care of oneself is important for young people also. Every six weeks or so, there is one week’s school holiday to recuperate. The six-week summer holiday gives a good chunk of time off for camps and family holidays, but not so much that you have bored teens hanging about the house for weeks on end. It’s a blessing, believe me.

Multi-lingualism

Speaking Dutch and English every day is normal for many Amsterdammers. Some French and German knowledge is common too. Other languages like Turkish, Arabic and Spanish are commonly heard in this very international city. There are at least 180 different nationalities living in Amsterdam.

At my kids’ school, six compulsory languages are part of the programme: Dutch, English, German, French, Latin, Ancient Greek. Once they reach Year 4, profile choices are made and Latin or Greek can be dropped, but not both. Learning the classical languages is an integral part of attending a Gymnasium; the pay-off is a week-long trip to either Rome or Athens in Year 5, paid for by the low yearly parental contribution. They also like Latin as a subject. Similarly, a week-long trip to Berlin, York or Paris takes place in Year 4, depending on the language studied. English and Dutch are compulsory until the end, which makes for very competent multi-linguals exiting school aged 18.

Normality

The grading system is marked from 1 to 10. Extremes at both sides of the spectrum are unusual. Getting an 8 is a really great score, 7 is very good, 6 is satisfactory and less than 5.5 is a fail. 9 is excellent and 10 is outstanding and rare as hen’s teeth. 9s and 10s are rarely awarded. 7 is a good mark and 8 is for the ambitious. So why don’t schools award 9s or 10s? It’s probably related to the zesjescultuur, the culture of mediocrity or “hey, 6 is just fine”. The push for excellence and striving for the top is not the norm here.

The upside is that kids here fare very well in terms of wellness, friendships and happiness. At my kids’ school it’s seen as pretty cool to be smart but it’s not the end-game: dumbing down or working like crazy to get all 9s are not desirable options. There is a prevailing egalitarian attitude which applies to the guy stocking shelves at the supermarket, the tram conductor and to the medical doctor. I admit though that for this non-Dutch family, a 6 isn’t really fine.

By the time kids finish middelbareschool, they are ready to unleash their Dutch confidence onto the world. My children have a mix of Dutch assertiveness and Irish humour which I love. They love Irish traditions and culture while being very happy living in the centre of Europe. Self-belief runs like water through this small country that has fought back against the North Sea, and I’m very glad my kids will gain some of it by osmosis.

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.
  • 28 Comments
Fisherman Sacchi White Stacy Sandal Adams Men's
REALTIME
  • DavidM Guest
  • Rank 15745

Sounds like an amazing place to live and its education system, based around a holistic attitude, is admirable. You have to admire the Dutch with the way they go about most things.

  • 21 hours ago
  • 0
    0
    0
    0
    Likes
  • AnChiarogEile Guest
  • Rank 0

@DavidM They are a very practical, self-reliant people and always were: "God created heaven and earth, but the Dutch created Holland". Not only did centuries of congealing patches of the North-Sea marshes with spades and wheelbarrows make them intensely collaborative and egalitarian - noble blood was no advantage whatever if your dykes kept collapsing - it also subtly undermined the medieval belief that the feudal social hierarchy was God-ordained in that God created a limited quantity of... » more

  • 16 hours ago
  • 1
    Adams Sacchi White Fisherman Sandal Stacy Men's 1
    1
    1
    Like
  • RM75 Guest
  • Rank 0

@AnChiarogEile Land reclamation very important in Singapore also. Another very self reliant nation we could learn a lot from.

  • 11 hours ago
  • 0
    0
    0
    0
    Likes
  • Govinfos Guest
  • Rank 0

Wha? Cycling to school and learning to speak another language fluently? Ah no....twill never catch on here.

  • 19 hours ago
  • 0
    0
    0
    0
    Likes
  • LeeHealy Guest
  • Rank 4858

@Govinfos
Didn't we (the Irish) do that already?

  • 16 hours ago
  • 0
    0
    0
    0
    Likes
  • Theronware Guest
  • Rank 0

Sounds really fabulous. My high schooler in the US has about zero time for social activities and a constant push for straight As. Anxiety is rampant among her peers.

  • 19 hours ago
  • 0
    0
    0
    0
    Likes
Sandal Fisherman Men's Stacy Adams Sacchi White
  • WillConqueror Guest
  • Rank 0

Wonderful experience and the cycling which is all on nearly level ground, does help. I spent some time in the Dwingelderveld National Park area. Get the experience of Netherlands. Don't forget to visit Sweden when you have time and bring the bike on the train from Copenhagen to Lund, where you will struggle to find too many cars..

  • 18 hours ago
  • 0
    0
    0
    0
    Likes
  • KeyboardWarrior Guest
  • Rank 0

Very impressive until you hear the school still teaches Latin & Ancient Greek.

Forcing children to learn a dead language is a terrible waste of their precious time.

  • 18 hours ago
  • 1
    1
    1
    1
    Like
  • Enaashby Guest
  • Rank 0

@KeyboardWarrior
Learning Latin is a smart thing to do. One's English vocab improves as 60% of our language comes from Latin. Once a student takes Latin, s/he will find learning a Romance language easier. Much legal, medical, and scientific vocab is derived from Latin. Translating from Latin to English helps one with being concise in writing. Higher level thinking is involved in more difficult grammatical aspects of Latin which correlates with some of the same thinking processes involved in... » more

  • 14 hours ago
  • 0
    0
    0
    0
    Likes
  • Aodh Guest
  • Rank 0

@AnChiarogEile Why not just learn Spanish or French?

  • 2 hours ago
  • 0
    0
    0
    0
    Likes
  • Eugene Guest
  • Rank 145871

Everyone has their own story. Mine today is from a cafeteria discussion among doctoral students in a Swedish university with a friend from the Political Science department who was writing his thesis on Nigeria. There happened to be several French-speaking students there from North Africa and as it turned out I was the only person there who could keep the discussion going as I had good French, Swedish and English. At the end of the discussion, one of the Swedish students said to me that I must... » more

  • 15 hours ago
  • 1
    1
    1
    1
    Like
  • AnChiarogEile Guest
  • Rank 0

@Eugene Yes, learning Irish is certainly a good mental exercise in that it's an Indo-European language sufficiently distant from English for children to grasp notions like grammatical gender that barely exist in the latter. But I think they'd get the same benefits from learning (say) Spanish, which has 400 million speakers worldwide and is closely related to five other sizeable languages, rather than Irish which is an little-spoken even within Ireland these days and not at all outside it:... » more

  • 4 hours ago
  • 0
    0
    0
    0
    Likes
  • Eugene Guest
  • Rank 145871

Everyone has their own story. Mine today is from a cafeteria discussion among doctoral students in a Swedish university with a friend from the Political Science department who was writing his thesis on Nigeria. There happened to be several French-speaking students there from North Africa and as it turned out I was the only person there who could keep the discussion going as I had good French, Swedish and English. At the end of the discussion, one of the Swedish students said to me that I must... » more

  • 15 hours ago
  • 0
    0
    0
    0
    Likes
  • davidpenney Guest
  • Rank 19567

Very interesting, there are many parallels here with Denmark. They've got an incredible cycling culture, there are no school uniforms or single sex schools and the school structure, with separate Gymnasiums for the final three years before University or the equivalent, The concept of autonomy seems to be exactly the same as in Holland. My children have gone through all this in a bilingual family, and yes, one Irish parent (myself) has had problems with the concept of getting a lower grade than... » more

  • 14 hours ago
  • 1
    1
    1
    1
    Like
Women's 7 2015 Wilson 2 Pro 0 Rush Size A0qHxwd
  • BellaItalia Guest
  • Rank 45

Tragically, our education system is way behind the times and that may be why, in a Jigsaw survey of 14,000 young Irish people on their mental health, School was described as - by far - the highest stressor in their lives (exams being a separate bar on the chart). That is tragic.
Education in Ireland is generally more didactic and authoritarian than in many other more enlightened countries. One example is that one of its chief aims, in about 90% of our state-funded schools, is the 'formation' of... » more

  • 42 minutes ago
  • 0
    0
    0
    0
    Likes