The Danish Way of Parenting: What the Happiest People in the World Know About Raising Confident, Capable Kids is a book by Jessica Alexander and Iben Sandhal which, since its publication in 2016, is constantly at the highest places in the lists of best-selling books all over the world.
The writers have taken inspiration from a simple observation: for decades now Denmark has always been in first place among the countries ranked as happiest, where “happiness” is intended as psychological and emotional welfare of residents independent of economic and social considerations.
As much as such rankings may be of questionable value, it is undeniable that the same nation being constantly at the very top over an extended period of time is a fact that should not be underestimated.
Iben Sandhal, a psychologist, and Jessica Alexander, a US journalist married to a Danish man, have spent thirteen years doing research and analysis, concluding that the secret to happiness lies in empathy, which in Denmark is taught from the earliest age, at school and at home. The thesis of the book is that, unlike our current age’s rampant cynicism would have us believe, for most people the welfare of others is important. After all, from an evolutionary standpoint empathy has always been an important instinct for group survival.
So, how can empathy be taught, or, at least, how is taught in Denmark?
As the authors explain, the Danish school system provides first of all a compulsory program at national level that starts from the kindergarten, called "Trin for Trin" (step by step).
The young students are exposed to pictures of other children with facial expressions matching the different emotions: fear, frustration, sadness, anger, happiness, etc. They are then encouraged to talk about what they just saw, describing not only what was shown but also what they felt while watching: this helps them to learn to put their own feelings as well as those of others in words, and as a result they “learn” empathy, problem solving, self-control, and how to read facial expressions. The cornerstone of the approach is the utter lack of judgment on behalf of teachers and students: the goal of the exercise is solely to identify the emotions shown while respecting them.
Another approach, which is growing in popularity all over the world and has been adopted also in Italy for the past few years, is CAT-kit.
The goal of this program is to improve the level of empathy and emotional awareness in children, and focuses on achieving the best possible accuracy in verbalizing experiences, thoughts, feelings, and sensations, through the use of tools such as cards with pictures of faces, rulers to measure the intensity of emotions, and representations of the human body where participants can draw the physical aspects and the position of the different emotions. An essential part of the exercise, aimed at improving one’s understanding of others, is to ask the children to draw friends, relatives, parents, strangers, teachers, etc., placing them in different areas within a series of concentric circles (My Circles). In addition, all Danish classes are organized so that children are discreetly grouped so as to balance their own strengths and weaknesses. For example, children who are stronger academically are paired to those who are less strong, the more sociable are paired to the shy, and so on.
The goal of the system, which encourages collaboration, team work, and respect, is to teach students that everyone has positive qualities and the importance of supporting each other. This approach has proven to be very effective for learning, in part because it is followed by an increase in the level of happiness: it is a known fact that achieving a goal is more satisfying when working as a team as compared to working alone.
Empathy is therefore also the key to success. Reducing bullying and increasing mutual awareness means improving the quality of social relationships and connections, which are fundamental for success in any professional activity.
The basic principles of the educational systems used in the classroom can be carried over to the home, as long as the spirit of play, participation, spontaneity, and collaboration among parents and children is preserved intact, state the authors, as they share examples and practical suggestions to help neutralize the stress which the rhythms and expectations of modern life place on families.