The following blog post was authored by one of our 2017 summer interns, Caroline Sullivan. Caroline comes to WCA from Bucknell University where she is pursing her undergraduate degree both psychology and political science with a minor in women’s and gender studies. Caroline had a very interesting study abroad experience in Denmark just before arriving at WCA and we asked her to share that experience with all of you.
Just before starting my internship here at Westchester Children’s Association, I spent three weeks in Copenhagen studying cross-cultural childhood development and early childhood education. I was not expecting to see such a large difference between Denmark and the United States in terms of approaches to early childhood. I knew that the Danes were more relaxed, as their welfare state allows them to be; they willingly and willfully pay higher taxes so that everyone in Denmark is guaranteed a good life, regardless of background. Still, I thought kids were kids and the education and parenting structures could not be that different.
Very quickly I learned that the United States is the only country in the world that doesn’t ratify the UNCRC—a document that outlines, essentially, the basic and seemingly inarguable rights that every child should have, including rights to education, to shelter, to food, to clothes, to play, etc. How could the greatest country in the world not ratify this document?
En God Barndum
This means “the good childhood,” and is a strong value that the Danes follow in daily life. Denmark provides children with so many opportunities for learning, such as attending museums with the sole purpose of engaging them, and frolicking on mile-long playgrounds built just for them. In the U.S., our fast-paced society hard wires us to prepare children for the future. Even when they are in early childhood, they are learning about “the next step.” In Denmark, all of this is quite different. Early childhood education means developing socially rather than academically. They don’t even start teaching academics to children under the age of six. They have pedagogues who are there to nurture them, pick them up when they fall, and teach them life lessons. In Denmark, I studied and worked in a børnehave, which is the equivalent to a preschool. Unsupervised preschoolers were running around the playground, swinging so high on tire swings that they were almost perpendicular to the ground, and three-year olds who were cutting up their lunches with knives or whittling sticks with even bigger knives (cue every American parent cringing).
A Happy and Healthy Denmark
Denmark is considered, by all measures, among the happiest countries in the world. The welfare state there means no stress about saving up for insanely high college tuition, emergency medical expenses or maternal and infant care resources.
The emphasis is on family in Denmark. The Danish government offers paid maternal and paternal leave for 12 months after a child is born. In the U.S., typically, mothers receive 12 weeks of unpaid leave at most. In Denmark, the government sets up “mothers groups”—special groups for all new mothers, split up by commonalities, such as new mothers of twins or triplets or mothers who have a baby with special needs. These women meet as little or as often as they would like for the year after having their child, and are there to support one another. Did I mention these resources are free?
On top of all that, the Danish government provides new moms with in-house visits that remind me of home visits advocated for by Westchester Children’s Association. According to WCA’s report, On the Home Front: “These programs can reduce child abuse and neglect, improve family and parent functioning, improve child health and increase school readiness.” In Westchester, 95.2% of low-income families do not receive the home visiting services they need putting the children of these families at an even greater disadvantage. In Denmark, all mothers regardless of class, receive visits by a nurse every day during the first week at home with their child and then can decide how often they would like to see them.
Research shows that families that receive home-based support have healthier and more school-ready children, stronger parent-child bonds, and less abuse and neglect. Westchester’s home visiting services effort seems to acknowledge this, but it is barely a start.
The short of it: The support that mothers in Denmark have access to works. Postpartum depression rates are much lower in Denmark than they are here, as are child death rates in the first year. Parents are able to nurture their children because of the support they receive from the government and their employers. Now more than ever, in Westchester and the entire nation, programs that support maternal and infant care are necessary to keep families healthy.