Secrets from Finland: How to Raise a Happy Child
Author: Madeleine Lesage, M.A.Ed. - Social Studies & Language Arts Teacher
As parents, we want the world for our kids. We want them to grow into successful, empathetic, confident, rational, responsible citizens. We want them to marry the love of their life, to live without fear, to build others up, and to always come home for Thanksgiving. But more than anything in the world, we just want our kids to be happy. According to the World Happiness Report, the United States is ranked as the 19th happiest country. Not bad… but really not great either considering we are arguably the most powerful country on earth. So, how do we raise happy kids in an apparently unhappy country?
Americans place a lot of emphasis on academic achievement, technological skills, and hitting developmental milestones right on time (or better yet, earlier than all the other kids). These are all great things. But to raise a happy baby, I want to look to the happiest country in the world to see what their secrets are.
The World Happiness Report has ranked Finland as the happiest country in the world for the second year running. While researching this subject, I became fascinated and inspired, and it has completely changed my outlook on parenting. I consolidated all of my research into five main ideas. I call them the “Five Finnish Secrets to Raising a Happy Child.” I hope you find these secrets helpful and together we can create a happier America.
1. Secret #1: Go outside and get some fresh air.
There is a saying - “there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes.” The Finns couldn’t agree with this sentiment more. The Finns are out walking and enjoying nature year-round, even in freezing temperatures. Finns are even famous for bundling their babies up in the stroller and leaving them outside to nap, which helps babies sleep longer and fight off infections.
According to Kumon UK, playing outdoors increases your vitamin D intake, decreases depression, and children who play outside are at a reduced risk for obesity. Fresh air also cleans the lungs, and rids your body of pollutants. Finnish parents encourage their children to play outside, because it helps keep their kids physically fit (more on this later), and it helps them build a relationship and respect for nature.
Studies have shown that being in nature can decrease stress, make you happier and more creative, and it can contribute to an overall sense of well-being. In America, I often see that playgrounds are completely deserted, and we often prefer being on our cellphones inside than experiencing the great outdoors. We need to get outside, breathe in the fresh air, take a long walk, and appreciate Mother Nature; we will be happier for it! 1
2. Secret #2: Let kids be kids.
Simple advice, yet this philosophy evades us at times. There is a lot of pressure on American children to grow up fast, to get one step ahead, to work harder, think faster. There is pressure to teach your kid early on, to make sure they have a head start so they are the top of their class, so they can get good grades in high school, in college, and get a high paying job. In Finland, there isn’t any rigorous academic prep for children; instead, kids have time to focus on being happy and learning to socialize first. Finnish children actually don’t even start school until they are seven years old, which gives them ample time to play, get dirty, be creative, spend quality time with their parents, and not stress about the pressures of life.
Early education programs in Finland stress the importance of free, unstructured, play time in the great outdoors. Finnish parents also believe getting dirty is a good thing; it is evidence of a day well spent, of an adventure had. There was an article in The Irish Times about the Franzenia Day Care Centre in Helsinki, Finland’s capital. Children at this daycare get an hour and a half of outdoor play everyday, as well as a two-hour nature field trip every week. This daycare center believes that children should only be concerned about playing, using their imagination, and creating.
So the next time we reach for alphabet flash cards, maybe we should pause and let our children go play outside instead. Give them time to catch a frog by the pond, pick some wildflowers, play tag, dig up dirt, let them to simply be a kid.
3. Secret #3: Happy parents raise happy kids.
You can’t pour from an empty cup. Finns know it’s tough being a parent, and they shower parents with financial, emotional, and social support. Happy parents raise happy kids, so let’s find out how Finnish parents are able to keep their cups full so they can pour love and happiness.
Unfortunately, as American parents, we really are on our own in a lot of ways. It is up to us to finance our pregnancy care, delivery, postpartum care, baby supplies, and absurdly expensive daycare when moms have to go back to work three months later (at best). American moms are virtually on their own after they leave the hospital- at precisely the exact moment when moms need the most help. Postpartum can be brutal. Health insurance will pay for the very basic postpartum check-ups, but American parents have to pay high prices for doula or midwife care post-pregnancy (they often aren’t covered by insurance providers).
On the other hand, Finland has universal healthcare, so parents don’t have to worry about any hospital bills. Also, a nurse is assigned to every pregnant mother from their first check-up 2 through the child’s seventh birthday, so parents have professional help the entire time. Mothers get four months of paid maternity leave. On top of that, the Finnish government sends every expectant mother a “baby box.” This magical box is filled with everything a newborn baby needs: clothing, diapers, baby sleeping bags, outdoor wear, bodysuits, a box crib. (If I have tempted you, you can actually buy your own Finnish baby box here - https://www.finnishbabybox.com .) Finland also subsidizes professional daycare centres, so it doesn’t cost parents half of a paycheck to send their child to daycare.
What can Americans learn from this, since we are on our own, with little to no government subsidization of rearing and raising children? The lesson is pretty simple: be kind to yourself. Raising children is a hard job, and you can’t give to others if you’re running on empty. When your friend offers to make you dinner when your family is sick, say yes. When your mother-in-law asks if she can take a night shift, or change the dirty diaper, or take the dog out, say yes. Let the stranger open the door for you with your stroller. Surround yourself with people who love and support you, even if you have to find them. Take a few hours to focus on yourself every now-and-then, focus on your mental wellbeing. Find a moms/dads group at the hospital, a library storytime, a postpartum support group. Make time to make yourself happy, and you will in turn be able to raise happy children.
4. Secret #4: Prioritize daddy time. Kids love their dads. Unfortunately, most American dads have to go back to work after a mere two-week paternity leave. American dads have to work around the clock to financially support their family; dads often have to put in extra hours at the office or find a second job to provide for the entire family. Most of the time, moms become the defacto primary parent.
Finland stresses the importance of “daddy time.” In order to get quality daddy time, the Finnish government enables fathers to take extensive paternity leave as well, paying them 70% of their salary for nine weeks. Finnish dads adhere to a co-parenting model where the dad has as large a role as the mother. Fathers help with baby hygiene while moms mainly focus on breastfeeding. Finland is also the only country in the world where fathers spend more time with their school-aged children than mothers.
This secret teaches us to make more room in our lives for daddy time. Try to schedule a time for the dad to take the kids fishing, hiking, grilling, or take the kids to see their favorite movie that is out in theaters. If you are pregnant, maybe you decide to take a tip from the Finnish model of co-parenting, where the dad focus is on baby hygiene while the mother focuses on breastfeeding. Whatever step you decide to take to get more daddy time, big or small, I think your kids will be happier and grateful for it. 3
5. Secret #5: Focus on your child’s physical and mental health first.
Thomas Edison once said “The doctor of the future will give no medicine, but will involve the patient in the proper use of food, fresh air, and exercise.” In Finland, parents and the government focus on physical and mental health, the overall well-being of a child before anything else.
The Finnish government recommends that children get three hours of physical activity a day, which inevitably leads to improved physical and mental health. To enforce that children are getting enough time to be active, schools in Finland have fifteen minute breaks for every forty-five minutes of class. This gives the children enough time to take a little walk, catch up with friends, and spend some time outside. Schools focus on the basics of being physically and mentally healthy first, before worrying about academics. It might sound like Finland isn’t concerned about academics at all, that all the children are just off wandering around in nature, and that the school system isn’t preparing them for the rigor of the twenty-first century. But according to the Programme for International Student Assessment, Finland has one of the best school systems in the world. In fact, according to a recent BBC article, Finland has some of the most physically fit children who have some of the highest academic scores in the world. Physical activity contributes to a child’s happiness, and it also gives them healthy social skills by learning how to play with other children.
Finland also recognizes the importance of making sure children are mentally healthy right from the get-go. The Finnish government has taken several steps to make sure it’s mental healthcare is accessible to their citizens. Finnish schools have adopted a curriculum that focuses on the mental well-being of children. Schools focus on creating a calm environment for the children where they learn social skills, how to empathize, and how to be confident.
The lesson we can learn here is that it is important to make sure our children are physically and mentally healthy before we start worrying about their academic performance at school. It is important to make sure our children know how to eat well, exercise, meditate, and relate well with others before anything else. ---
There you have it, five Finnish secrets for raising a happy child. I hope you feel inspired to take a walk in the woods with your son, schedule a date for daddy/daughter time, and maybe re-focus on your child’s mental health before worrying if they can count to one-hundred yet. The main idea just let your kids enjoy their childhood, make sure they don’t grow 4 up too fast. There is time for your child to worry about their SAT score, that high-stakes interview, and the electricity bill later. I don’t think anybody wishes they grew up faster; I believe most of us wish we had longer to just be a kid and to simply be... happy.
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