Courtesy of Mary Sauer

I Parented Like The Danish For A Week & I'm Never Going Back

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I’ve been having a little trouble adjusting to life as a mom of three.

Since my short maternity leave ended, my days have felt like a mad dash towards a nonspecific ending. In the mornings, I start my days at full speed. Some mornings, I am amazed to find it's 10:00 and I've yet to finish my first cup of coffee.

Although I have always valued encouraging independence in my children, things don’t happen quite like I expected they would in our home. I do everything for everyone. I cut their toast. I wipe their hands. I pick up their toys. I put on their pants, wipe their butts and all the while I feel responsible for keeping them entertained. Most days, I feel like one of those spinning tops, ready to fly off at any moment.

I don’t want the time I spend with my kids to feel like an obligation or an interruption when I have more pressing things to do. I want to find a balance, I want to spend time connecting on a one-on-one basis but I also want to stop wasting time doing things they can do for themselves. I think Danish parenting might be the solution to my time management problem.

Courtesy of Mary Sauer

Like a lot of North America, I have a fascination with Danish living and the way they parent tops my list. According to books like The Danish Way of Parenting: What the Happiest People in the World Know About Raising Confident, Capable Kids, the Danes value independent play, and as a result their kids are given the time and freedom needed to learn to entertain themselves. Parents don’t do everything for their kids; instead, they let them learn to care for themselves. They use mutual respect to enforce rules, instead of invoking fear of punishment. And even though they place a priority on independence, Danish parents have long prioritized a philosophy called hygge, which basically translates into cozy, intimate togetherness without the interference of technology.

The Experiment

I decided that the Danish way of parenting might be the key to feeling less strung out. I hoped dedicating time for independent play and time for one-on-one play would bring a balance to our days, giving me more uninterrupted time to do my boring adult chores. Since the Danes seem to do a lot of things differently than we do, I decided to embrace a few ideas for a week: a lot of independent play balanced with intentional together time, or adding some hygge into our life. Here’s how it went.

Day 1

Courtesy of Mary Sauer

I woke up on Sunday full of expectations for the day. My sister and brother-in-law were flying into town and would be at our place for the day. I wanted to spend the day focused on togetherness and nothing sounded more hygge-like than playing a few board games and eating lunch with my kids, husband and siblings.

Could I implement Danish parenting while taking on full responsibility for the house and the kids?

The togetherness was great, but I really struggled to implement the independent play. While I was trying to give the kids more freedom, my spouse was watching them closely and intervening at any sign of trouble.

The evening, we put away our phones for the evening, only pulling them out to snatch a quick family picture. We listened to Christmas carols and put up our tree. It was a memorable evening for everyone.

Day 2

Courtesy of Mary Sauer

On Monday morning, my husband headed back to work for the week. I knew this would be the real test: could I implement Danish parenting while taking on full responsibility for the house and the kids? My daughter woke early, following me around the kitchen asking me to play with her. In the spirit of encouraging independent play, I told her no, but I felt guilty doing so. I think she sensed that as I halfheartedly redirected her while I tried to clean the breakfast dishes.

Eventually, I finished my small list of chores and spent time with my big girls while my newborn slept. My morning had felt stressful because I was bouncing back and forth between her and my chores. I resolved to do better the next day, to set clear boundaries between free playtime and playtime with mommy.

That night, after my husband came home, we lit a fire. I must admit, I think my expectations for the evening were too idealistic. When I thought of hygge, I imagined my family reading books together under a warm blanket. Instead, however, my husband and I sat in front of the fire with our newborn while the big girls did somersaults off of the couch. At least we were all together and our phones were on silent, right?

Day 3

Courtesy of Mary Sauer

After breakfast, I dug out the baby dolls and my old baby dolls' clothes I had kept from my childhood. My big kids disappeared back in their room and my newborn nursed and went down for a two-hour nap. I did housework and work for my job without interruption. It was heavenly. I totally understood why independent play is such a big deal to Danish parents.

Leaving my kids to entertain themselves encouraged them to get creative, instead of relying on me to make up activities for them.

Honestly, my kids seemed happy, too. They had made up an elaborate game dressing their dolls, feeding them a pretend lunch and putting them down for naps. It was fun to see their imaginations run wild and I think leaving them to entertain themselves encouraged them to get creative, instead of relying on me to make up activities for them.

That afternoon, however, things got a little difficult. I wanted to prioritize getting my kids outside, since I know this is a big part of the Danish parenting philosophy. At the same time, I needed to get dinner ready and we were running out of daylight. It was frustrating, honestly. Sometimes, it feels like being a mom means I am constantly compromising, choosing between two important things because I only have so much time.

I decided we would stay indoors. I got out a few puzzles for them and encouraged them to play alone while I got a few things done. My middle child wasn’t having it and it made making dinner pretty chaotic. By the end of the day, I was burnt out. I didn’t want to spend the evening embracing togetherness, I wanted to turn on the TV and zone out on my phone. So I did.

Day 4

Courtesy of Mary Sauer

It was warmer than usual outside, so I knew we had to get out of the house. It went well for awhile, but my newborn started to fuss and I knew he needed to nap.

I was faced with a choice: interrupt playtime and drag my kids inside, or let them play alone outside. I knew that most Danish parents would let their kids play outside alone without hesitation, but I wasn’t so sure how I felt about that. I found myself wondering: do I feel like I have to constantly supervise my kids because they’re not safe? Or am I afraid my neighbors will judge me if they notice my kids in the backyard alone?

I texted my mom early that afternoon and said, “I’ve been parenting like a Dane and I’m never going back.”

In the end, I ushered my kids into our fenced-in backyard and did a quick sweep for potential dangers. I took my newborn inside and opened the windows overlooking our backyard. I was able to put my baby down for a nap, clean up the kitchen and get a little work done while my kids played happily within eyesight outside.

At the end of the day, I felt like everyone was happier. I didn’t feel like I had spent all day playing cruise ship director, and my kids were exhausted from a few hours of outdoor play. We built another fire and read books while we waited for my husband to come home. It felt great to spend the time together when I didn’t feel so burnt out from hours of keeping them entertained. It was easier for me to focus on them instead of zoning out on my phone or finding housework to busy myself with.

Day 5

Courtesy of Mary Sauer

By day five, I was sold. I texted my mom early that afternoon and said, “I’ve been parenting like a Dane and I’m never going back.”

My kids seemed to be thriving in their new independence. Because we were spending concentrated chunks of time together without the distraction of screens, they felt secure enough to do their own thing the rest of the time. They spent all morning playing around the house while I got a a few things done. That afternoon, they pulled their coats out and begged to go outside. I said yes without hesitation. I didn’t care if my neighbors judged me, I knew they were happy and safe in our backyard.

That day, I spent some time thinking back on the week. The transition to a more hands-off approach to parenting wasn’t always easy. There were times when my kids spent the morning whining or fighting over their toys, but I think that is simply part of being a mom and that one parenting philosophy can’t solve every problem. The benefits of Danish parenting far outweighed the drawbacks, as my kids clearly loved the chance to play more independently and to explore outside on their own. As an added bonus, I didn’t feel overextended at the end of the day.

I’m not sure there is a perfect approach to parenting, but I do think the Danes have figured a few things out. I think American parents like myself could learn a lot from them, from how the importance they place on independent play and the balance they strike by setting aside time to be together with the people they love.