Tuesday, 27 February 2007

The power of perception and the management of expectations

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
Key points at-a-glance
Methodology behind report

Having lived in the Netherlands, when my son was aged five until he was seven, I feel compelled to comment upon the recent Unicef research revealing that the Netherlands came out top of a Unicef league table for child well-being. The UK coming last, or 21st.

The Netherlands is a great place to live in my view - if you are Dutch. I am not talking about Amsterdam here. Amsterdam is in a world on its own and cannot be compared with the rest of Holland.

If I take the key measures of the study in turn and try to make objective comparisons between the Netherlands and the UK I find that there is as much ‘unsaid’ that bears examination as follows:

1) Material Well-Being
Apparently the study has looked at levels of child poverty, which are above 15% in the UK. The BBC reported in 2003 that 1.1 million children lived in households with less than 40% of the national average income. But, the national average income of the UK is substantially higher than The Netherlands, so more people have more money in the UK and therefore expect more from life. The Dutch Government’s Polder model has seen economic success in terms of controlling the explosively high earnings seen in free-market economies. One of the consequences of this is that the majority of people in Holland live in broadly the same style of housing, known as ‘row housing’ and do not subject themselves to social comparisons as much as Brits. do – An Englishman’s home is his castle and judging by today’s house prices; his downfall. How many Brits. Are living beyond their means, trying to keep up with the Jones’s? A factor Bridget blogged about on 24th Jan, Glittering Prizes. No wonder parents in UK don’t have time to be at home with their kids; they are too busy working to cover the cost of the mortgage, which brings me neatly on to my next point….
2) Family and Peer Relationships
Firstly, lets not forget that we are comparing countries with populations of approximately 60 million and 16 million – not exactly apples and apples comparisions. I think the Dutch probably invented work:life balance. They are used to flexible working and are by law from working too many hours – and they by and large, stick to it. Public transport works and is not expensive so you can rely on it to get you home on time.
The cultural expectation is that everyone sits down at 6pm – on the dot - to eat a fairly basic family meal (meat and two veg). This is followed by coffee and a biscuit or piece of cake at around 7:30pm. If you are invited to socialise with the Dutch you are invariably asked for Coffee – not dinner. Another way to avoid the social pressures of the endless dinner parties the Brits. are prone to throwing. Brits are certainly more attached to having a good social life and sadly that often excludes the kids.
Another factor could be the high divorce rate in the UK. At the risk of sweeping generalisations, I wonder if fewer people would become divorced in the UK if they couldn’t afford to. With a heritage in Calvanism, some Dutch are frugal by nature and subscribe to a fairly strict code of conduct – despite what we hear about their liberal nature.
3) Health and Safety
I can tell you that the Dutch equivalent to the National Health Service is second to none – once you get into the system; a factor that I found quite difficult as a foreigner. Once you get in it however, you are referred with ease to specialists and the paediatricians are really excellent. That said, don’t expect to go there with your own ideas of how your needs should be met. There is a process, a system and that’s how it is.
As to general health and safety well, if you as a child are asked questions about this and you have never lived anywhere else – how can you possibly know the answer? I can tell you that I, as a Mother, have observed some of the slackest rules for the safety of children in Holland. I have seen kids in outdoor play parks without restraints on fairly dangerous rides. I have witnessed accidents in unsupervised play areas; enough to turn you grey.
Yes, its safer for your child to be outside in the Netherlands than in UK – biking is a pastime as well as a main mode of transport, with bikes having the right of way over cars, a factor I found particularly infuriating when you are behind cyclists at three-a-breast.
There is almost certainly less violence in Holland. Although the assassination of Pim Fortuyn in 2002 shocked the nation and there seems to have been some pockets of racism springing up; even in rural communities.
4) Risk Behaviours
What about healthy eating? Well I can tell you that if I consumed the amount of cheese on a daily basis I would be in trouble, even a biscuit a day with coffee and I’d be back at Weight Watchers. The Dutch being amongst the tallest in the world must be genetically disposed to consuming vast quantities of what to other people is fat-inducing or heart-attack inducing. That said, they typically do not indulge in binge-drinking as do the Brits. – ah, another pitfall of that social life again.
We all know about the success of the Dutch model of legalising Cannabis which is readily available in Amsterdam and beyond. That said, I never saw much evidence of it being used outside of Amsterdam; but then I didn’t frequent many night clubs either!
5/6) Educational and subjective well-being
Notably the Dutch kids did not apparently fare well in educational well-being, but they did say they liked their teachers. They also had a very good sense of overall well-being that British kids did not. Obviously they perceive themselves to be happy and well off even if others might say otherwise. Why should this be? More content parents, More satisfied with their lot. No social comparisons. And on the other side of the coin: Less ambitious, Less social, More myopic?
And the moral of the story?
Be that as it may, Dutch kids are apparently happier and that’s what we all want in life isn’t it? Evidence from our coaching would suggest that to be the case. We frequently work with people to find out what they really want from life and using our experience in Positive Psychology help them to reframe a previously held negative position into a more positive outlook on life. If you say you are happy then you are. This approach has to be good for our kids; the more positive parenting we can offer the more well-balanced and happy our kids are likely to be.
For more information on our coaching programmes designed to elicit a positive outlook or deal with cross-cultural issues, please see our services page on our main website.

For a humourous view of life in the Netherlands read: The UnDutchables, Colin White and Laurie Boucke

No comments: