Saturday, October 1, 2016

Does The Danish Way Exist and Does it Lead to Happiness?

This week we look at one of the highest ranking stories with the #psychology tag. Tracy Gillett, who runs her own blog, wrote “The Happiest Country on Earth is Proof Positive Parenting Works” about parenting in Denmark. It relates to a book written by Jessica Joelle Alexander and Iben Sandahl that I hadn’t heard of, but according to a one-star review on Amazon, there is not much more in the book than is on the web anyway.

I have three concerns about all of this, and I’ll work through them one by one.

1. What is this Danish way? Can there really be a ‘Danish Way’ of parenting? It’s a smallish country, but I’d be surprised if a distinctive way of parenting could be found that operates independently of other factors.

2. If there is, is it right that Gillett refers to it as ‘positive parenting’ or is that something different?

3. The word ‘proof’ suggests evidence of a solid causal link between the two ideas. In this case we can check for evidence of a solid causal link between positive parenting (or maybe Danish parenting) and being the happiest country on Earth. That’s quite a big causal claim.

4. Denmark is often referred to as the happiest country on Earth and that claim needs some attention.

1. The Danish Way

As I understand it, the book is organised round an acronym PARENT, which is remarkably English for what are supposed to be Danish ideas, and reminds us that it is written for an American audience (see for a quote from the introduction). For information about the six ideas represented by the letters PARENT, look at The Danish Way website, but be prepared to settle for ARENT on that page. The P is missing. Regardless, the six are Play, authenticity, reframing, empathy, no ultimatums, togetherness (hygge). Here’s the kind of claim I’m looking for:

Danes, on the other hand, follow a philosophy called “proximal development,” which basically states that kids need space to learn and grow (with a little help, if necessary).

I dispute most of that sentence. Although there is a researcher named Danish who has some work on proximal development, and some research on proximal development has certainly been done in Denmark, I can’t find evidence for such claim. But the claim doesn’t make much sense anyway. I’m not aware of a philosophy called proximal development and I believe the authors actually refer to Vygotsky’s “Zone of Proximal Development” (ZPD) – not a philosophy, but an incompletely explained developmental psychology concept that has implications close to the reverse of the authors’ claims. Vygotsky’s point was to emphasise the social aspect of learning: we learn how to deal with new challenges not only by ourselves, but with the presence and presumably mentorship or assistance of more competent others. Thus the suggestion that Danish parents do not intervene unless it is absolutely necessary sounds both false and anyway irrelevant to the spirit of what Vygotsky was trying to emphasise. The book supports some of its claims with studies carried out in the US and with reference to the Danish play patrol system, which does indeed seem to carry some elements of ZPD.

So I can only give a mixed answer without reading more of the book. Is there a Danish way? I’m not sure. Where there are differences, like a later starting age for primary school children than is typical in Anglo-Saxon countries, is that a difference in parenting, or is it just better to bring kids up in Denmark ? A life-swap article from The Guardian relating to this is a compelling read – and I’m inclined to agree with this review that if a country’s happiness is to be improved, it will take political upheaval before the kind of parenting suggested in this book is able to occur.

What I can say is that what little I have read of the book does not convince me that there is a Danish way (as opposed, for example, to a continental European or Scandinavian way) worthy of this kind of treatment, even if the ideas presented are in themselves quite intuitively appealing.

2. Positive parenting?

Back to Gillett. Actually her article is mostly a summary of the messages in The Danish Way, and she doesn’t really get to this point, except at the end in the final lament that there is not enough support for the choices that Gillett and friends make. What is positive parenting? Another page on Gillett’s own site is quite useful in explaining it, and she’s right, it’s not that dissimilar to what The Danish Way authors seem to suggest. So The Danish Way is mostly just ‘positive parenting’ – not especially, uniquely, or exclusively Danish.

3. Positive parenting as a cause of something

Gillett has a page dedicated to a defence of positive parenting decisions. There’s evidence that punishment causes problems, but I don’t see evidence of benefits. I understand the logic and I like it. But I’m a step further from being able to say the title claim is valid. The problem I see now is that Gillett’s claim seems to be based on a claim made in The Danish Way. So here’s the summary of the evidence so far:

Denmark is consistently the happiest country. The Danish Way suggests it could be because of parenting. I’m suggesting the book has only a weak connection to any genuinely Danish parenting or one that is not clearly demonstrated on The Danish Way’s website. I am inclined to think that what has been described is probably more representative of positive parenting as explained by Gillett, which means that positive parenting makes Denmark the happiest country, not Danish parenting.

4. Is Denmark really the happiest country?

Gillett refers us to a BBC article about the World Happiness Report 2016, which put Denmark on top and Burundi at the bottom. The article begins to explain happiness through the way people interact with each other and unhappiness through civil unrest. I wonder if The Danish Way would help the Danes stay happy in equally troublesome civil conditions as are faced in Burundi. Isn’t it a little insulting to the people of Burundi?

Have a look at a couple of images copied from the Report (pages 16-22). First, here’s the top 20 countries. Notice that there’s not actually a big difference in scores among these countries.

And the bottom 20 countries are here. Overall there is clearly a difference between the top and the bottom, but is it worth trying to explain differences between individual countries, especially if you clutch at ‘parenting’ as an explanation. If you look at the key below, you’ll notice what factors contributed to the overall index.

The Report uses these individual factors in an OLS regression to show the importance of each of them in contributing overall to happiness. Social support, freedom to make life choices, and generosity all seem to make important contributions to positive affect. Look at the orange and green bars. Much smaller for the bottom 20 countries than the top 20 countries, right? What does that tell you?

My impression, regardless for the moment of whether I think the measures used were sufficient, is that comparisons within the top 20 are silly. Comparisons across time within a country, comparisons between regions… these things are ok.

But I just can’t see that it makes any sense to tell any of the countries on top that they can do anything to compete with Denmark: it’s all so close at the top.


Positive parenting deserves more attention and I agree with many of the fundamental principles but I haven’t yet seen enough to make a comment about it that has any scientific basis.

In the meantime, I am very sceptical about The Danish Way because a) I don’t believe a specific set of parenting strategies can be labelled as Danish and b) it appears that any evidence for effect belongs to the strategies themselves rather than to an overall strategy and c) its popularity seems to be linked to the distinctly unproven claim that this parenting has a causal connection to Danish happiness. For Gillett, the book itself was proof. It isn’t.

No comments:

Post a Comment