Arriving to live in a new country is usually a big adventure, and complexities can mount when children are added to the picture. Find a school, find some new friends, and everything will be OK. Right? That is, of course, where it all starts, and the Netherlands is turning out to be a good destination for our young expatriates.
Many expats are familiar with international schools in the country. The European School at Bergen is a slightly different type of institution that was created especially for expat kids. Operated by the European Union, the school came to exist for kids of the often foreign staff of the EU research center 20 kilometers away at Petten. Now having around 600 students, the school also accepts other students on a space-available basis, and is comprised of nursery through secondary school-aged students from around Europe and the world.
Students at the European School are grouped into class sections by their home country and classes are conducted in their mother tongue, but with heavy emphasis on speaking a second language. Most kids seem to converse in English on the playground and after school. Dutch and other languages are often overheard as well.
The school at Bergen is about 45 kilometers north of Amsterdam, and there is transportation available at extra cost. The curriculum appears to be complete so far, and our kids are not complaining about having less homework here than in Paris. We’ve asked some Dutch friends, and heavy homework is apparently less of a Dutch tradition than in other parts of the world.
While this expat educational island exists for kids living here and easing into the Dutch culture, life is pretty bright for many other children in the Netherlands. A 2007 UNICEF report on the well-being of children in economically advanced nations ranked the Netherlands number one in average scores across several categories. The areas surveyed included material well-being, health & safety, education, family and friends, behavior and risks.
Here are a few things that we have seen so far while living in the country with ‘the happiest children in the world.’ Of course most of the following examples exist in other places, it is just that these things appear more common, and attention and acceptance of children here is more evident.
Retail stores and restaurants often have play corners with books, toys and games for children. One women’s clothing store has a large tree house in the center of the store. This is great for the children while waiting for their mothers, and must be good for store revenue because customers may have more time to find things to buy instead of wrestling with bored children. Our kids also pointed out the frequent toy surprise basket that is brought to the table by staff at local restaurants.
There is a respect for children here that is not as evident in some parts of the world. We often bumped into other pedestrians when walking the sidewalks of Paris with our three young children, and would be met with annoyance and comments like how we should sedate our children before taking them in public. However, there has been more understanding and compassion when one of our bunch steps on someone’s foot or sends an inadvertent elbow into a strangers sensitive parts. One passerby stopped for a couple of minutes to ensure our son was alright after they had simply bumped into each other.
Kids are treated more as people here, even before they start to act like real humans. This goes also for an earlier independence. We’ve seen 8 year-olds driving boats by themselves while speaking on mobile phones, and it is not uncommon to see a small kid riding an XL adult bike alone while crossing from one small town to another.
Sports are routinely parts of children’s lives here. Activities like soccer, field hockey, speed skating, martial arts, baseball, handball and fencing are not only popular, but played with at least as much enthusiasm as I have seen in other locations. And don’t forget the bicycles. While many Dutch children see their bike only as a means to travel from A to B, they still get the exercise benefits of cycling. Our kids have taken to the bike lanes with gusto, and sometimes complain when they have to be driven by car during rainy or below-freezing weather.
Our ten-year old daughter played violin back in Paris. She was happy when the eleven-year old girl living across the street invited her to the local children’s orchestra. This eleven-year-old is always smiling. We have speculated that she could actually be the happiest kid in the world. And the orchestra and lessons are rolling along well so far with occasional concerts with music that is progressively sounding better. Our son is tapping away also with drum lessons at the same music facility.
So the unsurprising conclusion is to not be afraid to bring international children to live in the Netherlands. Just do be prepared to give those facts of life speeches a year or two earlier than originally planned. We’ve encountered a few challenging questions when walking past the odd sex shop window or coffeeshop with our kids. “Go ask your mother,” becomes a flimsy way to dodge their growing curiosity after a while.