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What Can Danish Parents Teach Us About Empathy?

Recognizing and understanding the emotions of others is key to well-being

Published on: March 20, 2023

Girl comforting another child who is having a hard time in school

ParentEd Talks: A Parenting Playbook for Raising the Happiest Kids on Earth

With cultural researcher and parenting expert Jessica Joelle Alexander

Wednesday, March 22, 2023, 11 a.m. PST

Did you know that Denmark has been voted as one of the most empathic countries in the world as well as one of the happiest for more than 40 years in a row? What’s their secret? Let’s have a look at some of the differences between Danish and American parenting styles, and why empathy is so important for the well-being of children and families.

Survival of the friendliest, not the fittest

Empathy is the ability to recognize another’s emotions, or, more simply put, being able to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. It used to be believed that humans were innately selfish, but that is simply not true. We are all wired for empathy from birth. We just have to learn how to connect the wires to make it work. Being able to better trust and understand others is key to achieving more happiness. And kids can be taught this powerful skill. In fact, Danes teach empathy in schools from the time children are in preschool up until the age of 16.

All of the latest neurological research shows that humans get more happiness from cooperating with others, rather than from winning alone. And yet, in America, we are much more focused on the individual. Being a winner and striving to be the best are very normal goals for us. We equate winning and striving to success, and many of us don’t really question this. It’s just part of our culture. Winning means a lot.

Perhaps one of the major differences between Denmark and America is that Danes value teamwork much more than striving to be a star. There is a beautiful quote that says, “When you replace ‘I’ with ‘we,’ even illness becomes wellness.” And this can be clearly seen in the Danish happiness results year after year.

But how do Danish parents teach empathy? Language choice and not using negative labels, letting children self-regulate and not overriding their emotions, and reading a wide range of stories.

Words matter

The first thing that is crucial to remember as a parent is that our children are mirroring us. Our language choice is so important. Some good questions to ask ourselves are: How do I describe others? Am I understanding or judgmental? Am I tolerant or shaming? These are all things children are copying. Talking badly about others in front of our kids and saying things like “She is mean,” “He is selfish” or “She is so annoying” is not empathic language, it’s labeling.

In Denmark, you rarely hear parents talking negatively about other children in front of their kids. They actively try to find ways to get their children to understand another child’s behavior, without using negative labels. If you remember that all children are fundamentally good and that there is a reason behind all behaviors, this helps us naturally find the good in others. This makes us feel better, because it teaches reframing, another Danish parenting concept that improves happiness.

We can help our children find the reasons behind the labels:

“You say he is annoying? Do you think maybe he is hungry? Or could he be tired because he missed his nap? You know how it feels be to be hungry and tired, right?

“She is mean? It sounds like she had a bad day at school. The other day you said she was sweet. She is actually sweet, right?”

Helping children understand the feelings behind behaviors and leading them to a kinder conclusion teaches empathy.

All emotions are okay

Before we can be good at recognizing the emotions of others, we need to be able to understand our own emotions. As parents, we sometimes tell our children what they should or shouldn’t feel. We override them. If they are sad, angry, hungry, cold or upset, sometimes we say, “No, you aren’t,” “Don’t be sad,” “You have no reason to be angry,” “You must be hungry, eat!”

Telling children how they should feel disallows them from learning to self-regulate their own feelings. As parents, we have to give our children trust so that they can learn about their own emotional boundaries. This builds a stronger sense of self, which is paramount to developing self-esteem down the road. When they are older, they will be less afraid to say “no” when their boundaries are pushed, because they will trust themselves to make the right decision based on what they feel. This is such an important lesson to teach children. We can help them with the language we use, but we need to trust them so they learn to trust themselves.

Life is not a fairy tale

Talking about difficult emotions in books can be a fantastic way to build empathy. This means reading books that don’t always have a happy ending. Many topics presented in Danish children’s books are considered shocking by American standards. The original “Little Mermaid,” for example, is a Danish story. In the original version, the mermaid doesn’t get the prince in the end, but rather dies of sadness and turns into sea foam. That story opens up quite a different kind of discussion than the version most people know, but it’s incredible how receptive children are and how much they want to talk about all kinds of things. It seems to be more difficult for adults sometimes than for children. Remember, they are mirroring our discomfort. If we talk about life’s peaks and valleys in a nondramatic way, our children will be more resilient in the long run.

There are innumerous benefits to incorporating empathy into our parenting, and the Danes have a wealth of knowledge on the subject. Participants who join my upcoming talk for ParentMap will receive a special access code and discount for The Danish Way of parenting and teaching empathy course, in which they will learn why Denmark has the lowest levels of bullying in Europe.

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