AARHUS, Denmark – Regitze Spenner Ishøy’s mornings begin like many working mothers do: she wakes up around 6 a.m., gets her 5- and 13-year-old daughters ready for school, and goes to work in Guldborgsund, a town in approximately 60,000 inhabitants. in from Denmark southernmost region. After picking up her youngest child some eight hours later, she cooks dinner, answers last-minute emails, and ends up passing out. There’s a rhythm to her family’s schedule, she says: weekdays are “rinse and repeat.”
But Spenner Ishøy has at least one thing going for her, especially when it comes to world opinion: Denmark is the best place in the world to raise children, according to US News & World Report’s Top Countries 2022 rankings. The list of best countries to raise children is based on a global survey of more than 17,000 respondents and how they view countries on eight attributes: caring about human rights, being seen as family-friendly, its environment for gender equality, be considered happy, have income equality, be safe, and have well-developed public education and public health systems.
Locals say Denmark’s family reputation is due to a high degree of institutional support, including government-sponsored health care, childcare and education, as well as cultural values linked to social trust , community, and “hygge,” which capture feelings of comfort, security, and time with loved ones.
The Danish approach seems to be bearing fruit. In 2021, the vast majority of Danish children reported a high level of well-being, according to a survey Copenhagen-based think tank Mandag Morgen and The Lego Foundation.
“We have this society which, on the whole, provides the right support for families,” says Spenner Ishøy. “When I can relax knowing that my child will be taken care of, that she has the best ability to have a good day, I can go back to my job and do something for someone else.”
This support is broad: expectant mothers have free access to doctors and midwives, while new parents are entitled to 24 weeks of paid vacation eachas well as five home visits from a nurse in their child’s first year. Even the crown princess benefited from the help, notes Nanna Elberg, a nurse shift leader at the Copenhagen health authority who has made such visits for 18 years. Babies as young as 6 months are a guaranteed place to daycare, which is heavily subsidized, and when the kids get older, tuition is free – and they can get a monthly allowance while he was in school.
Denmark’s strong childcare system is considered essential for the economy, as both men and women are expected to work outside the home. But it’s also part of a wider Danish effort to create a more equal society, starting with the country’s youngest residents.
Denmark in pictures
“The state really takes responsibility for the children. It’s not just a family affair, it’s seen as a shared and collective affair,” says Ditte Winther-Lindqvist, professor of developmental psychology and holder of the UNESCO Chair at the Danish Institute of Pedagogy and education from Aarhus University. “The first three or four years really have a huge impact on the rest of children’s lives,” she says. “If you help them, it really helps the next generation as well.”
The Danish ethos around parenthood emerged alongside the welfare state development in the 20th century. But now, cracks are starting to appear as some public services struggle to meet people’s demands. A increasing share of students attend private schools, for example, and the Danish healthcare system is increasingly dependent on private hospitals.
Meanwhile, there is a growing emphasis on “individualisation and performance-based culture” as Denmark’s education system strives to compete with China and Germany, says Jonas Keiding Lindholm , who heads Mandag Morgen and was previously general secretary of Save the Children in Denmark. All of these factors, he says, risk eroding social equality and the emergence of a “Denmark for two”.
“It’s still marginal compared to other countries, but we’re starting to see higher levels of children not thriving,” says Keiding Lindholm. “This development parallels the gradual dismantling of the quantity and quality of welfare state services.”
Separately, the broad cultural adherence to the dominant parenting style means there is little tolerance for Danes wanting more flexibility. When Kira Dechau Holm and her husband were considering options for their first child, they thought they had two choices: send her to daycare 40 hours a week or keep her home full time. Concerned about the quality of the local daycare, they chose to keep it at home despite the pressure on their family life and finances.
“Because our community is so institutionalized, when you come out of that, you’re pretty much alone from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.,” says Dechau Holm. After her family moved to a small town in Copenhagen, they found a private school that allows their 4-year-old child to attend part-time daycare. This option influenced their decision to have a second child; Dechau Holm is expected in early 2023.
Even so, Dechau Holm and other Danish parents say they’re not surprised that their country is the number one place in the world to raise children – and they wouldn’t choose to raise their families anywhere else.
“The reason we got to where we are with a balanced family is because we have the safety and security to be able to experiment,” says Dechau Holm.
But the parents also shared tenets of a Scandinavian code of conduct that they likely first learned in daycare: Rim Law, which effectively advocates humility and collective well-being rather than individual success. Spenner Ishøy, for his part, says Danes should be more accepting of each other’s parenting tactics, and that at a system level there is always room for improvement.
“Just because we think we’re better in Denmark doesn’t mean we can’t learn or can’t do more,” says Spenner Ishøy. “We need to be aware of how we can support (children in difficulty) and be better off as a society, as an education system and as parents.”
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