The Danish Way of Parenting: What is it? How do I start?

The Danish Way of Parenting: What is it? How do I start? Bex Massey UK hygge parenting and lifestyle blog.

1 Free play is central to the Danish way of parenting

Free play is central to the Danish way of parenting. It teaches children to be resilient and less anxious. Resilience isn’t developed by avoiding stress, it’s cultivated by learning how to master it. Free play enables children to learn vital skills to cope with stress and manage risk. 

In Denmark, parents try not to intervene unless it’s absolutely necessary. They trust their children to accomplish new things and give them the space to build their own trust in themselves.  In ‘The Danish Way of Parenting’, Jessica Joelle Alexander and Iben Dissing Sandahl talk about the concept of ‘proximal development’ developed by Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky. Vygotsky believed that a child needs the right amount of space to learn and grow in the zones that are right for them, with the right amount of help. 

An example of helping a child to climb over a fallen log is used in the book: 

“If at first he needs a hand, you give the hand, but then perhaps only a finger to help him over, and when it is time, you let him go. You don’t carry or push him over.”

Giving this space and respecting your child’s independence enables them to develop competence and self-confidence, because they are in charge of their own challenges and development. 

What is free play and how can we use it?

Free play is: unaided, spontaneous, voluntary, child-led activity that allows children to develop their own imaginations, while exploring the world around them.

Free play isn’t: scheduled or planned activities led by or interrupted by adults.

Free play tips

  • Ditch the technology! Imagination is the magic ingredient for play. 
  • Create a sensory-rich environment with interesting lighting, music and different textures, to enhance brain development during play.
  • Get creative! Studies show that creative play, involving craft, role play and music facilitates brain development, make a dressing-up box and craft supplies available so they can create spontaneously. 
  • Use nature’s playground. Find safe outdoor areas where children can be free to dance, run, jump, climb and explore their environment.
The danish way of parenting. Use play the Danish way. Find safe outdoor areas where children can be free to dance, run, jump, climb and explore their environment.

2 Empathy is the secret ingredient of Danish parenting

Empathy, looking at a situation through the perspective of another person, is described in the book as:

“The ability to recognise and understand the feelings of others…to feel what someone else feels – not only to feel for him, but to feel with him.”

As a parent, you have an important responsibility to set the example your child will follow. If you demonstrate empathetic behaviour, your child will follow your lead. 

In the Danish school system, there is a compulsory national programme taught as early as preschool, called ‘Step by Step’. Children learn about empathy, problem solving, self-control and how to read facial expressions. Flash cards are used which portray the spectrum of emotions, from sadness, all the way through to joy. A critical element of the program is that the teachers and children do not judge the emotions displayed. Instead, they simply recognise and respect them. 

Knud Ejler Logstrup, a famous Danish philosopher believes that parents have a responsibility to nurture their children’s abilities to empathise. The words we use, or the stories we tell about others, are essential for teaching our children how to feel emotions with someone. 

The Danish school programme 'Step-by-Step' teaches children to learn about empathy through facial expressions.
The Danish school programme ‘Step-by-Step’ teaches children to learn about empathy through facial expressions.

Avoid judgement

One of the pillars of Danish parenting is to avoid judgement. Danes try to avoid judging anyone too harshly, and they strongly believe that all members of a family have a right to be acknowledged and accepted.

When Danes talk about other people in front of their own children, it is customary to point out their good character traits. By pointing out the good in others, it becomes natural to trust and to give the benefit of the doubt.

Where negative behaviour is experienced, Danish parents try to explain the behaviour of others and why they might have acted in an inconsiderate way:

“Do you think he was tired? You know how grumpy we can be when we are tired.”

Danish parents try to teach their children to see another person’s behaviour as simply affected by a circumstance, rather than labelling someone as mean, selfish or rude. This simple strategy relates to another Danish parenting practice – reframing. 

Empathetic parenting tips

  • Review your own thoughts of others – you will be amazed at how often you judge!
  • Try to defend someone’s actions by imagining events from their perspective. 
  • Read to your child – studies show that reading helps children to increase their levels of empathy and to experience all emotions, even the uncomfortable ones.
  • Use empathy and forgiveness to repair fractured relationships you may have in your life. Meaningful friendships and family relations are the most important barometers when defining true happiness. 
  • Listen carefully to others and give them your full attention. 

3 Our words reframe our reality

Although we may not realise it, the language we use is a choice, and it forms the frame through which we see the world. 

We should heed the wisdom from this well-known quote by Ralph Waldo Emmerson:

“Watch your thoughts, they become your words; watch your words, they become your actions; watch your actions, they become your habits; watch your habits, they become your character; watch your character, it becomes your destiny.”

By reframing our thoughts and the language we use around our children, we can shift limiting mindsets. Our children will live up or down to the language we use around them. 

Tips for reframing

  • Keep negativity in check – pay attention to negative thought patterns and practise viewing situations from a more positive angle.
  • Choose your words carefully – eliminate words such as ‘always’, ‘never’, ‘shouldn’t’, ‘never’ etc. 
  • Separate the actions from the person – instead of saying “he is aggressive”, you could say “he is struck by moments of aggression”.  
  • Used thoughtfully and carefully, humour can lighten situations and break tension.  

4 Parenting with authenticity is crucial

Parenting with authenticity is essential to guiding your children to be true to themselves and others. Authenticity is the cornerstone of creating happy children, who will grow into happy adults. 

We need be true to ourselves in order to model what honesty is to our children. We need to let them know that it is ok to feel all of our emotions, even the ones that are less socially acceptable, for instance anger, sadness and jealousy. This is where the hard work comes in, because we have to practise authenticity in order to teach our children how to do it. 

Authenticity tips

  • Be true to yourself and your own hopes, dreams and needs. Listening to and expressing your thoughts and feelings is how you learn to live your truth.
  • Value and practise honesty, so your child can see sincerity and authenticity in action. 
  • Make it easy for your child to be honest by avoiding judgement, accusation and anger when dealing with misbehaviour. 
  • Read books with your child that have tricky, sad or messy endings – being exposed to the peaks and valleys of life fosters empathy, resilience and kindness. 
  • Don’t hide your emotions from your child – instead, express them simply, honestly and explain them in an age-appropriate way. 

5 How we use praise matters

Many parents believe that praising children for how clever they are will build confidence and motivate them to learn; however, three decades of research carried out by Stamford psychologist Carol Dweck’s has overturned this idea. 

Praise is closely connected to how children view their intelligence. If children are frequently praised for being naturally clever or gifted, they often develop the opinion that ability is something that is something you have or you don’t. Dweck identified this perspective as a ‘fixed mind-set’.

Task-focused praise, rather than person-centered praise helps our children to understand that ability is not something they ‘have’, it’s something that they can develop, like a muscle, with practice and determination. This is a ‘growth mind-set’. 

Jessica Joelle Alexander and Iben Dissing Sandahl point out that growing research in psychology and neuroscience supports the idea that a growth mind-set is the real catalyst for outstanding achievement. Coping with failures and being able to reframe them as learning experiences, as well as developing grit and determination, when faced with obstacles are the key ingredients to success in many areas of life. 

It will come as no surprise then, that the Danish approach to praise is task-focused. Danish parents are more likely to ask questions about their child’s accomplishments, rather than dishing out empty praise. Careful questions and task-focused praise helps children to master skills more effectively, rather than simply viewing them as experts already. 

Examples of task-focused praise

  • “I like the way you tried to fit the pieces of train track together again and again. You didn’t give up and you found a way to fit the pieces together.” 
  • “I’m so proud of you for how you shared your snacks with your sister. It makes me happy to see you sharing, because it’s a kind thing to do.”
  • “I know you found your homework difficult, but I am proud of you for trying your best with it and not giving up. Well done!”

6 Respect goes both ways

We have to give our children respect in order to receive it. Parenting styles which rely upon fear or manipulation to engage children are problematic, because they don’t foster respect – they foster fear. 

With fear, children don’t always understand the real reason behind an instruction, they just comply to avoid confrontation. This doesn’t help children to build a strong sense of self, which comes from understanding what rules are, why they exist and what it means to value them.

In Denmark, a democratic parenting style is the norm. It is most closely related to an authoritative style – parents establish rules and guidelines that children are expected to follow; however, they are very responsive to their children’s questions about the rules. They also see children as essentially good-natured, and react accordingly.

In Danish schools, democracy is promoted by allowing students to establish class rules together with their teacher every year. Establishing your family rules and consequences together can be a way of developing a democratic dynamic in your home. 

How we view our children influences our reactions towards them. If we see them as good-natured and doing exactly what they are hardwired to do, we are more likely to react with compassion and forgiveness, than with anger and resentment. 

An interesting illustration of this, is the difference in the Danish and English terms used for toddlerhood. In England, the phrase ‘terrible twos’ is often heard. In Denmark, the phrase ‘trodsalder’ is used, meaning ‘the boundary age’. Danes view boundary exploring and questioning as normal and welcomed, rather than annoying and terrible, and when approached in this way, it’s easy to view associated behaviour as natural and normal. 

The Danish Way of Parenting. In Denmark, toddlerhood is referred to as 'trodsalder', meaning 'the boundary age'. Boundary exploring and questioning is viewed as normal and welcomed, rather than annoying and terrible.
In Denmark, toddlerhood is referred to as ‘trodsalder’, meaning the ‘the boundary age’.

7 Avoid ultimatums

You’re tired. Your child is not listening, and despite your best efforts, they continue to misbehave and annoy you, and you snap. “If I have to ask you one more time, that’s it!”

What’s the issue with ultimatums?

Giving an ultimatum to a child puts the parent in a position where there has to be a winner and a loser. Ultimatums are a high-stakes strategy because they always involve a power struggle where someone will lose face. They never offer a win/win solution and you can end up being the loser with this discipline method, even if you win the battle.

Ultimataums can damage your bond and erode your child’s respect for you. Children learn that boundaries don’t mean anything if people don’t follow through with their threats.

You can also lose all sense of proportion, becoming locked into a petty power struggle, losing track of the important issues.

Analyse a moment where you issued an ultimatum – was the language you used familiar? Did it remind you of something you heard as a child? A lot of the language we use with our children can be traced back to our own childhoods.

Many of us were raised with fear-based parenting and ultimatums, so it’s understandable if we grab those well-worn phrases from our parenting toolkit when we are rattled. Knowing this makes it easier to be aware of using ultimatums, shouting or manipulation and can motivate us to change our parenting style. 

Sometimes, stand-offs with our children can be like putting up a mirror to ourselves. If sarcastic comments and eye-rolling trigger us, we need to ask ourselves if we react to our children in this way. If so, try to put a stop to it. I know it’s easy to say, and it can be difficult to put into put into practice. 

One thing that can help is to stop worrying about what others think of you or your child’s behaviour. Tension can mount up when you feel the stares of strangers or the judgement of a smug relative. 

Whether you are are in the supermarket or at your friend’s for lunch, keep your parenting in line with your values. Breathe deeply, remain calm and try to use a smile to diffuse the situation. Most importantly, offer a way out or a way back from the confrontation

It’s important to remember the difference between petty arguments and serious line crossing. Is it really important that they finish their meal? Will the world end if they wear that shirt for another day? Is the confrontation really worth it?

What are your non-negotitables and when do you want to educate and enforce them? Is making a scene respectful to you or your child? Consistency is important, but berating your child for every minor infraction will erode your relationship and wear you down. If you’re consistent with the non-negotiables, they will respect your boundaries without resentment. 

Alternatives to ultimatums

  • Identify what your non-negotiables are and why those limits are in place. Does your child know what they are? If not, sit down and explain the rules in age-appropriate terms and why they are in place. 
  • Try to give a natural consequence rather than an ultimatum, e.g. your child refuses to eat their evening meal. Rather than issuing an ultimatum, let them end the meal there without a fuss, but do not agree to an alternative meal or sweets later. 
  • Negotiate a basic family agreement together – your child can also ask you to agree to certain things too, e.g. to spend time together without screens. 
  • Separate your child from their behaviour. Remember that your child is lovely, they just make poor behaviour choices sometimes or they might be having an off day, just like us.  
  • Avoid power struggles by looking for a win-win scenario. Are you able to find a solution that makes you both happy?  
  • Try to see your child as intrinsically good-natured – children are hardwired to explore boundaries and question rules – this is not defiance – this is how they grow and understand the world around them.
  • Review past ultimatums – write them down and evaluate them – what led to them and what can you learn from them?
  • Find ways to say ‘yes’. If you think your child wants to do something you find unreasonable, can you find a way to fulfil what they want to do in a different way? 
  • Understand your triggers. What leads to them? Are they linked to something from your past? What can you do to avoid being triggered? Do you need to practise more self-care to feel less stressed out?
  • Listen to your child. It’s important to show your child that they are listened to and understood, even if you can’t carry out their request. If something can’t be done, explain why, in simple and kind terms. 

8 Use hygge time to bond

Loosely translated, “hygge” is a sense of cosiness, connection and wellbeing. It’s a way of life in Denmark and is often hailed as one of the reasons why Denmark has been consistently voted to be the happiest country in the world, according to the World Health Organisation’s Happiness Report. Hygge, therefore, is particularly important to family life. Team spirit and a common purpose help family time to run smoothly.

During hygge time, families work together to make sure there is maximum comfort for everyone. Everyone has a role and a responsibility for making the time special and cosy. One person may make the atmosphere warm with candles and blankets, another person may be responsible for finding games that everyone can play. Preparing and cooking food together is the norm and older children are encouraged to play with and help the younger ones. 

It’s encouraged to leave personal problems and stresses behind for this part of the day and to value the feeling of connection and being present in the moment. 

the danish way of parenting - make hygge time part of your routine. Create a cosy atmosphere using blankets, candles and items collected from nature.
Make the atmosphere cosy with candles, blankets, fairy lights and items collected from nature.

Hygge parenting tips

  •  Make the Hygge Oath part of your family time – see below for more details.
  • Stay present by making hygge time screen-free and schedule this family time into your routine to make it a habit.
  •  Find time in your week to eat together around the table as a family.
  • Make your space cosy with warm lighting, blankets, homemade craft projects, items collected from nature, food and drinks that you have prepared together. 

The Hygge Oath

Look at your family’s routines and find a point when everyone can be together and schedule this as hygge time. Decide in advance what your family roles and rules will be. Below is an example from the book:

Hygge time: Sunday lunch

We will work together to create a cosy atmosphere where everyone feels safe and included. 

During hygge time we:

  • Turn off mobiles and screens
  • Look for ways to help out so that nobody gets stuck doing all the work
  • Make the space cosy
  • Help to prepare food and drinks
  • Play games that everyone can take part in
  • Leave bad moods, arguments and irritations at the door
  • Make the effort to really listen to each other
  • Share one thing about our day that made us feel grateful
  • Find ways to show each other that we care

The Danish Way of Parenting book review

Buy the book

The Danish Way of Parenting‘ by Jessica Joelle Alexander and Iben Dissing Sandahl


  1. February 13, 2019 / 7:05 am

    I really enjoyed reading this very thorough book review Bex. This book has been on my reading wish list for a while now!

    • webadmin
      February 18, 2019 / 10:18 pm

      Ahh thanks for taking the time to reply Charlotte, I think you’d love the book. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your e-mail address will not be published. Required fields are marked *