Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The Happiest Kids in the World by Rina Mae Acosta, Michele Hutchison

Rating: WARTY!

I requested this book because I thought it would be interesting, and in some ways it was, but I evidently expected too much from it because it failed to make a case for me. It's sad, because I felt like I shared some common ground with the authors. I've never been to Holland, but I grew up in England and went to school there, and now I'm seeing my own kids through school in the US, so I share two of the three perspectives presented here, but I have to say that the picture painted by the authors felt narrow, very biased, and worse than this, there was really nothing offered to suggest how a nation which might want to emulate the Dutch could get from here to there.

The fact that we call them Dutch, and they call themselves Nederlanders, and we call the nation Holland is an interesting mix of etymology which has deep roots. The word 'dutch' just means people, and there were mountain dutch and lowland dutch, but the ones we now call Dutch go stuck with the abbreviated version of that title. Holland was just one part of a group of people who settled together into one nation, and the rest of them got stuck with that name! Nothing to do with the book, but just in passing....

I'm open to the notion that the Dutch can teach us some things, but I was neither convinced that they have a world-beating handle on things by this book, nor that what was presented here offered was anything more than what intelligent and common-sense parents are doing anyway. In this regard it was rather insulting because the authors seemed intent upon translating a lot of personal perceptions into a generalized diagnosis of, and prescription for everyone, so that all Dutch were painted the same color - and a very bright one, whereas all Brits and all Americans were each panted their own dull and muddy shade of grey. This struck me as entirely unfair.

In 2013, a Unicef report rated Dutch children as the happiest in the world, so something seems to be working there. Two writers, a Brit named Michele Hutchison who moved to the Netherlands in 2004 with her Dutch husband, and an American, Rina Mae Acosta who is also married to a Dutch guy, are raising their kids in Amsterdam and they explored why it is that Dutch children are so happy. This book is the result. In that same survey, Britain ranked 16th and the USA ranked 26th, which was just above the three poorest countries in the survey, so I can't help, but ask why that is. Why did the Dutch do so well, and the Americans and Brits so poorly? or is it not quite so black and white as is portrayed here?

While I initially felt that I might like this book, and rate it positively and encourage others to read it, the more I read of it, the more disillusioned I became. It is truly important to widen our perspective when it comes to how we live our lives, and in particular, how we relate to and raise our children, but I had serious qualms about the validity of the conclusions the authors were drawing.

The first of and most obvious of these is that the Unicef report was only one survey, and a recent one, so I have to say I'm skeptical about basing any long-range planning on a single narrow study. The study did cover five dimensions: material well-being, health and safety, education, behavior and risks, and housing and environment, but the idea that the Dutch do it best is based on that single snapshot. I'd have to ask: were Dutch kids also the happiest five, ten, fifty years before? If so, then we have something to build on, if not, then what's changed and how reliable is it? We don't know from what we're told here, and that question isn't asked in this book.

There was one part of this book which related how the principal of a school, who liked to greet each child as they came in through the door, mentioned that this was not always the way it was done: kids came piling in chaotically when she first arrived. This is a change she has made herself to this one school. There was no mention of whether this same polite, stress-free organization existed in other schools or whether it was just this one principal's peccadillo. To me this was a failing, and it was one which ran like a thread through the book. There is no grand plan here or any deep survey, just a lot of anecdote and opinion. It's not something I'd want to base my kids' futures on.

This book does cover raising children from conception through schooling, so in that regard, it's comprehensive, but the authors haven't finished putting their kids through high school, and since this is based so much on personal experience, that end of things was a bit bare; however, it was at the beginning of that path of life where I encountered another instance of confusion or conflation. At one point early in the book the authors praise the Dutch for their having babies at home as opposed to in the delivery ward of the nearest hospital, but later we learn that only 25% of Dutch mothers-to-be actually do this.

Now that's higher than in other countries, but I'm unclear what the point was that the authors were trying to make here. If the number of moms (even though it's relatively large) is still in the minority, can we make any valid claim that this materially contributes to anything beyond the personal, much less to kids being happy?

This was further confused later when I read of moms in the US and Britain, who do give birth in hospital, being kicked out after a very short stay. This was mentioned like it was a problem, but If the idea is to have a safe birth and then get mom home as soon as is practicable, how is this problematical as compared with those quarter of Dutch moms who stay home for the birth? I didn't get the point of those portions of the book which were like this.

What bothered me is that the authors clearly are starting out with the conclusion that the Dutch do it better than anyone and the Brits and the Americans do it badly by comparison, yet we never get any questioning of whether this is really true on a widespread basis. The odd survey will only tell you so much, yet the Dutch get endless praise here to the point of it being tedious and irritating. Frankly this praise felt like fan-girling. We never got an unbiased perspective with the same kind of detail on how things are done elsewhere, except for frequent and very negative sniping which was as unfair as it was inaccurate.

Worse than this, we tend to get a lot of personal anecdote from one or other author including a three-page-and-a-half spread about the high-school experiences of one of the authors. While it's sad that anyone should have to go through what she did, the fact remains that it's her personal subjective experience. So far so good, but the thing is that after a revelation like this one, the authors generalize and talk as though their own personal experiences, interviews and opinion apply to everyone equally!

No, they don't. My school experience in Britain was far removed from hers, and my kids' experiences are likewise far removed from the ones depicted here as being representative of the USA. You cannot generalize from the personal or blandly take your own experience and treat it like it speaks for everyone. It was things like this which made me quickly lose all faith in this book's message, turning me from a potential convert to an adverse critic.

The vista over which this book looks is disturbingly narrow. We get a lot of author opinion, and we get second-hand interviews and comments made by Dutch women, but for a book about children's happiness, we get precious little from the kids. We don't get a significant number of kids views, and the few we do get are anecdotal Dutch ones. We almost never hear from other kids in other countries, and the authors make no effort to try to seek out views which might actually oppose theirs, to give some balance to the presentation.

It's this lack of adequate comparison with other countries in a quantifiable way which lets the book down. We hear a lot of opinion, but precious little to back it up. One thing that's mentioned, for example, is suicides in Silicon valley, but if we look national suicide rates in Wikipedia, the Dutch do not come out best! A lot of Middle-East countries are lowest, with the Dutch appear halfway down the list, beating US citizens, but not doing as well as the British. It seems to me if the kids are extraordinarily happy here, this certainly doesn't seem to permeate into adulthood, and the authors never address this or ask why. They simply keeping on pointing to the shiny Dutch way and praising the bright colors of the Dutch lifestyle, conveniently ignoring the fact that it's a rather thin veneer of paint in many places.

One of the odd things which are praised is how tall Dutch men and women are. This point was made over a dozen times in one way or another, but I fail to see how it relates to happy children, unless being happy somehow magically makes a person taller! Dutch men average the tallest in the world at five feet eleven inches in the survey I read, although the authors cite one which quotes them at six feet one inch. Dutch women came second to Latvian women for tallest, but the fact is that eight other nations in the survey I saw were within two centimeters of the Dutch, so I kept asking, "What's your point?" I still don't know! Nor do I know how tall the authors are, talking of perspective. If they're relatively short, then perhaps the Dutch men did seem particularly tall and this is why they kept returning to this. Again, it felt like fan-girling. Other than that I have no explanation for the repeated references to it!

This was one of a many digressions which took us away from the main topic (if we assume from the book title that the main topic is childhood happiness). It's for this and related reasons that I have questions about the approach this book took. If we put aside the Unicef survey for a minute, the entire rest of the book consisted of observations and some interviewing, but there was really nothing offered to support a causal relation between A and B - it was simply assumed.

At one point, for example, the book began talking about biking adding six months to life expectancy. It rambled on about how the Dutch have taken to bikes and how children learn to bike independently to school at an early age, and while I can see that this contributes to children gaining confidence, I don't see how it's any different from other activities pursued by children in other countries which contribute equally to child welfare and confidence. It was just tossed in under the untenable and unsupported assumption that this very Dutch activity was quite different from anything any other nation does and therefore must somehow contribute to this unique Dutch happiness!

The most amusing thing to me about this whole story of children biking to school was that the author complained of how busy the bike lanes were, yet the school was only a half mile away! Why were the children not walking, and getting their exercise and building their confidence that way? It was one more confusing episode that made no sense at all.

Meanwhile, the dangers of cycling were swept under the rug. A report discussed at DutchNews.nl (April 2016) shows that 25% of those who die in a road accident in the Netherlands are cyclists, compared with a European average of 8%. Denmark and Hungary are next on the unsafe cycling list; in both countries, 16% of the people who die in road accidents are cyclists, so to pretend there is no problem with cycling safety or that dangers are low and controlled is simply dishonest.

With regard to child mortality, it's the same in the Netherlands as it is in the U.K., with the US being about twice that. other numbers do not put the Netherlands out there as a shining and unique exemplar. This is not to run the Dutch down but to put things into a perspective which the authors of this book seemed somewhat loathe to embrace in their gushing prose. There's a report online which numbers 2,375 children as victims of human trafficking in the EU in 2013 and 2014, and most come from Bulgaria, Hungary, the Netherlands, Poland, and Romania. This did not fill me with confidence that the Dutch system is so much better or safer. These are just a couple of examples which I found quickly and which are glossed over or ignored here.

I'd have been a lot happier if their survey of childhood happiness had gone wider and crossed a greater range of social classes. This is why I had questions about whether the authors of this book are correctly diagnosing the situation. Perhaps they are. Perhaps everything they have discussed is measurably a contributor to their conclusion and explains why Dutch children are happier, but I never felt convinced of it by what I read. It was all too loosely wrapped, too rambling, too repetitive and disorganized.

The authors offer a lot of suggestions, but nowhere was there any discussion about whether or not other parents in other countries were already doing these things despite not being Dutch, or whether it was even practical to advocate 'the Dutch way' when so much of it is inextricably tied to Dutch culture and Dutch laws, and government and national attitudes. You can't simply move those things to another country, and even if you could, you can't expect them to work as they do at home. Also conspicuous by its absence was any survey of Dutch ex-pats, who are living in other countries, but adhering to the Dutch method. Does it even work abroad? How do their kids fare? The book is silent on this perspective.

There was some talk of stress. One the one hand we're told that the Dutch lifestyle avoids stress and this is a contributor to happiness, but then the authors turn right around and tell me that there's a special world in Dutch, Faalangst, which is exactly what it sounds like: fail angst. The very fact that such a concept exists and has a special word for it presupposes that there's stress and attendant measurement of it, which are the very things we're told don't exist! This evident hypocrisy was not an isolated incident.

One section of the book covers bullying, and Britain and the US are given a poor commentary here, yet a quick look online again reveals that this is not a fair picture. World Atlas doesn't show Britain or the US in the worst 10. Even in this older study more UK students (42%) said they were happier in school most of the time than on average in the rest of Europe (33%). Most of the bullying seemed to be tied to racism and religion, and nothing to do with pressure of school work. This study reports the Netherlands and the UK almost neck-and-neck with the US not far behind, so there appears not to be a huge discrepancy.

Google really screwed me over yesterday when I began writing this! I must have hit some oddball key combination while typing, and my entire blog edit screen went blank! I'd never encountered this before, nothing I did would bring it back, and my last save had a half-hour before because I was so focused on writing this! Google doesn't do backups or undo in its blogger environment.

More fool me for trusting Google, whose motto is "don't be evil"! Thanks Google. That's a half hour of my life I can't get back! I decided to quit for the night because I'd spent so long on this. The rest of my review, below, is more of a summary so I don't end up spending a large portion of yet another evening on this when I need to be doing other things!

So let's get going. On another tangent, the book delved into antibiotic use, and yes, the Netherlands does commendably have the lowest human antibiotic consumption rate in Europe, but what this book doesn't reveal is that between 2005 and 2009 The Netherlands also was among those nations with the highest sales of antibiotics for veterinary use of 10 European countries investigated! It's the antibiotic use in animals which is really the issue in the form of germs building resistance to the drugs, and which is becoming a chronic and dangerous problem, so once again we had a biased perspective which favored the Dutch.

Anecdotal stories of kids being too tied up with "building up their resumes" instead of playing outside that were related here neither described my childhood in England, nor that of my own kids' childhood here in the US. I'm guessing they don't represent a whole host of other kids either, judged from what I see in my neighborhood, so once again we had a personal perspective being generalized and applied as though everyone else was the same. It's not the case, and it's misleading.

At one point the authors gush about how Dutch moms never get depressed, but dutchdailynews.com reports that "The Netherlands, U.S. Have Highest Depression Rates in World"! Another web site, iamexpat.nl, agrees: "... new study has found that the Dutch have very high rates of depressive disorders compared to the rest of Europe." The nltimes.nl website agrees: "Eight percent of the Dutch population aged 12 years and older admitted to suffering from depression in 2014. That is more than 1 million people."

So once again we get a different view outside of the book to the one we got inside it, and the one inside both favors the Dutch and appears not to have been well-considered. The more of these instances I encountered, the less confidence I had that this book was being fair or was telling it how it really is!

One of the things mentioned more than once was the Dutch habit of making a "breakfast" out of chocolate sprinkles on a slice of bread and butter. That sounds yukky to me, but apparently it's quite popular; however, as dutchfood.about.com explains, it's not the only thing they have for breakfast and I think it's misleading to go on about it like it is.

This lack of a reliable and comprehensive coverage of the facts was disturbing to me, and I found it over and over again. For example, the chapter on PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) fails to mention how close most results are, giving a false impression. It does show that the Netherlands is in the lead (except in science, where the U.K. came ahead, but the book mentions only the ranking, without recognizing that the rankings can be misleading. Look for yourself, here.

In this chart, for reading, the Netherlands is placed 11th, the UK comes 27th, and the US a "shocking" 41st! But if you look at the actual scores, the Netherlands gets a 512, the UK a 492, and the US a 470. This is a less than a 10 percent difference. So yes, the Netherlands is ahead, and yes, the UK and the US need to do more, but the actual difference is smaller than we're led to believe when we're told only the rankings. This same mis-perception applies to reading, where Netherlands scored 503, the UK 498, and the US 497. That's a one percent difference, but to hear only the ranking, we learn that the Netherlands came fifteenth, while the UK and US were 22nd and 24th. That makes it sound so much worse and it's misleading. This also applies to the science scores, where there's only a two percent difference.

So yes, the authors made their point about the Netherlands having a decent education system, but need that have been done at the expense of unnecessarily dissing the US and the UK? No, it needn't, and worse than this is the studied ignoring of all those nations which appeared above the Netherlands in the scoring, such as for example, Norway, which scored well in PISA and also did well in the happiest kids ranking, as did Finland (except in science!), Germany, Switzerland, and Belgium to name five. None of these other countries come under the microscope in order to determine what it is they're doing right and whether or not it compares or contrasts with the Dutch system. Again, I found this lack of a wider perspective to be glaring and regrettable.

There was a chapter on discipline which showed a Dutch bias too: even as we're told Dutch kids are badly behaved (as in running around in restaurants, and so on), we're expected to accept that and not find any real fault with it. Again we're given no comparative examples except for one anecdote of quiet French kids on beach! These quiet kids were taken as representative of the entire French nation and contrasted with the Dutch kids who were exploring and so on.

For all we knew, the French kids had been exploring, and were tired and wanted to rest. Maybe they'd been to that beach many times and were bored. Maybe they'd been brought to the beach against their will and resented it because they'd rather be doing something else. The fact is that we don't know, and even if we did know, it was entirely wrong and completely unfair to make a comparison like that and generalize from it. These two chapters were really the final straw for me, and they lost whatever remaining goodwill I'd harbored for this book, because this type generalization was rife: taking a few stories, or an interview or two, or a personal opinion, and extrapolating it into a grand argument favoring the Dutch way.

In the final analysis, we have only a narrow viewpoint from two writers who are apparently quite comfortably-off as judged from the text (occupations, lifestyle, friends, etc.). One of the things they discuss is owning cargo bikes and tandem bikes which can cost several thousand dollars, but my point here is that their perspective is not necessarily representative of everyone, and I didn't see any serious effort to expand their viewpoint beyond their circle of friends and acquaintances or to seek out contrary points of view for the sake of presenting a balanced argument. It seemed like the only things they were reporting were those which upheld their preconceived conclusion, and they were downplaying or ignoring anything which might sabotage that apple cart.

Finally, I have to say a few words about the technical aspects of reading this book. The advance review copy, for which I thank the publisher, was available only as a PDF, and it felt to me like it was written for the print edition, with no thought given to reading it as an ebook. If you can read it on a tablet or a desktop or laptop, and see it pretty much full size, then it makes for a decent read.

I read most of it on my phone, because it was more convenient for me, but it made for a very annoying read! The screen on my phone is larger than most, but if I tried the read the book as single pages, the text was annoyingly small. I could turn the phone sideways and read the text in a larger format, but then I had to contend with sliding the page up and down to read all of it. This would not have been so bad had it not been for the tendency of the app (BlueFire Reader) to get confused. Often when I tried to slide the page down or up, the screen would switch to the previous page or to the next page, There didn't seem to be any reliable way to swipe the page up or down without triggering a page change and it really was annoying. In the end I put up with the tiny text and read it as single pages. Just FYI!

Here are one or two more brief notes that I missed yesterday(!), in this and the next two paragraphs. A paper on Sexually Transmitted Infection (STI) noted that "The incidence of STI-consultations and diagnoses increased substantially in recent years, both at GPs and STI centers" so again, not everything is as perfect as it might seem with Holland's child-rearing practices. A reason for this STI increase might be that Dutch do not employ condoms as frequently as some other countries in Europe, such as France, for instance. Maybe those French kids on the beach were soberly contemplating that?!

On this same sexual score, the incidence of teen pregnancy in Holland is almost the same as in Germany, and HIV infections and abortion rates are higher in the Netherlands than in Germany, so here we have another case of another country doing equally well, without a hint of recognition from the authors, or any hint of questioning whether the Germans do things the same, or differently, and what that means in either case. Again it's biased reporting.

There's a comment at one point on the wearing of school uniforms, which isn't the practice in Holland. The problem with this is once again that the authors don't look at the other side of that coin, either. School uniform is not just about identity and belonging, it's also about not being singled-out for one reason or another, and one of those reasons is that poor families, who cannot afford to dress their kids the way wealthier families can, do not stand out in an adverse way from everyone else who might be wearing designer clothing and the latest fashions otherwise. This is another example of where this book failed in not seeking out a broader sample base than merely the authors' own opinions, or the personal acquaintances of the authors.

So to conclude quickly, while I'm by no means trying to say that there's nothing we can learn from the Dutch, I have reiterate that this book failed to convince me that there's any more we can learn from them that smart and caring parents haven't been doing all along. Much of what's advocated here is simply common sense, and it's insulting to continually suggest that parents elsewhere, particularly in the UK and the US are not doing these things or are clueless about them.

Worse than this, though, is that their conclusion, grandly titled "Let's Start a Revolution" offered no way to start this revolution! Yes, individuals can adopt best practices, but a lot of what was discussed here was dependent upon the Dutch government, Dutch laws, Dutch culture, and so on. You can't pick that up and drop it into another country and expect it to be accepted or to work.

The authors' failure here, was in their offering absolutely no suggestions as to how other countries, even assuming they buy the authors' Dutch is best philosophy, could go about embracing the Dutch way, and if it's not possible, then what was the point of discussing all of those things? The book too often felt that it was much more interested criticizing British and American child-rearing than ever it was in trying to offer suggestions as to exactly how those societies might facilitate changes which could bring these supposed benefits of the Dutch way into those other countries, and for these reasons I cannot recommend this as a worthy read.