Dutch freedom and respect allow youth to flourish

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The Independent Online

"Let them be free" is the golden rule for child-rearing in the Netherlands. No wonder Dutch kids have been rated Europe's most fortunate. From a tender age, their opinions are valued, their wishes respected, and there is no homework until their last year in prep school.

Few Dutch children have chores to do at home but those aged over 12 may soon be able to claim an allowance, according to a proposed Bill of Rights, in return for "legitimate" labour such as cleaning their rooms.

Dutch society tends to encourage its infants to explore and experience whatever they please, offering maximum freedom and minimum responsibility. Some would argue that this has turned a whole generation into spoilt, undisciplined brats. Others say family relationships are generally open and good and that children are happy and well-adjusted, as is borne out by the Unicef survey.

But none of this is new. As early as the 17th century, visitors were both surprised and disconcerted by what was then perceived as Dutch over-indulgence of their young. "Look at the masterpieces of our Dutch family scenes by Jan Steen in the 1600s," said Gerrit Breeusma, head of development psychology at the University of Groningen. "Families elsewhere only became child-centred from the 20th century onwards. But it was already the norm centuries earlier in Holland."

Dr Breeusma is unsurprised that Dutch children were found to have the highest level of well-being of any industrialised country in the Unicef survey.

"You could almost say that we Dutch invented the child-centred society; children have always played a very important role and even more so because family relationships are more liberal and communicative than ever before here.

"After the Sixties and early Seventies conflicts within families, the baby boomers learnt how to get on really well with their kids. There are no holds barred and few taboos that cannot be discussed and chewed over the dinner table in Holland," he added.

New York-born Pat de Boer Polise, who is bringing up her daughter in the Netherlands, agrees. "I feel my daughter Aly is definitely safer in Holland. It's fantastically child-friendly - everything seems to revolve around children. Many of their activities, from karate to swimming, are state-subsidised and very cheap by American standards," she said. "There is no pressure whatsoever on kids to become achievers until they are into their teens."

But the total lack of discipline or even correction of badly behaved kids in the Netherlands is a problem, she added. "It's like they are in control of things, liberalism taken too far, because children need to have borders and be taught some responsibility early on; but that doesn't happen here, in my experience."

In several Dutch police precincts, there is similar thinking. In a bid to counteract underage binge drinking, police have taken to bringing home teenagers, ringing the doorbell and confronting parents with their drunken teenage children, threatening them with obligatory attendance at courses on excessive alcohol problems or hefty fines unless they control their offspring.

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