Educational practices and culture shock
Divya Susan Varkey, Masako Kato and Huib Wursten
Culture shock, education, expat expectations, parenting, morality
“Knowledge is power. Information is liberating. Education is the premise of progress, in every society, in every family.” – Kofi Annan
If we look at education as a process of socializing a human being to develop certain values and traits, instilling knowledge and skills, and generally preparing individuals to become productive members of society, we see a few distinctive figures that play a role in that process. Parents and extended family, educational institutions, teachers, peer groups, and society at large, including governing bodies, cultural institutions and the media. How much of a role these particular figures play in a child’s education and development can be very different depending on which part of the world you live in. Particularly interesting is how people who move from one culture to the other process these differences. One of the authors of this paper is an Indian expat in the Netherlands. According to her, “I was a much cooler parent when I lived in India than now that I live in the Netherlands. In India, I could relax a bit because I know that the school and society take on a large part of the responsibility of educating children and instilling certain values in them. Here in the Netherlands, I feel that it is entirely up to the parents and kids.”
The underlying cultural values that create such an atmosphere of participation in the development of the newer members of society warrant study and reflection. “It takes a village to raise a child.” This famous African proverb was quoted by a Dutch head of school recently at an event attended by one of the authors. Curiously, in Europe, the saying came to the forefront of the education discussion at an international Oslo conference in 2018, titled “It takes a village” – aimed at developing optimal service responses to children growing up in dysfunctional families.
The way education –formal and informal – is approached in different cultures is the objective of the study of this paper. Who are the primary educators in a child’s development in different cultures? How do we distinguish between the approaches to education? What are the underlying values that determine these distinctive approaches? And more importantly, what can we learn from each approach?
This paper uses several anecdotes from different cultures, interspersed with cultural explanations by the authors.
Role of Parents as Educators:
Autonomy vs. Protection
Anecdote 1: An American parent relocating to India complained to one of the authors that the relocation company did not understand the needs of families – “We were given one bedroom for my husband, myself, and our 16-month-old daughter!”
Anecdote 2: Upon visiting a Dutch household, one of the authors heard their infant cry constantly from the other room. The author asked if they wanted to go check on the baby. The Dutch parent replied: “No, she’ll go back to sleep eventually. She needs to learn that we can’t be there all the time.”
Anecdote 3: An Indian expat parent living in the Netherlands is quoted as saying the following to one of the authors: “Parents here don’t care as much for their children as we do in India. In India, we go to the children when they cry and pick them up when they fall. Here they don’t show that much care and consideration.”
There is no one better or one worse parenting style – parents typically try their absolute best in every culture. However, here you see distinctive approaches to educating a child from the American and Dutch cultures on the one hand and the Indian culture on the other.
The American and Dutch cultures are known to score high on Individualism – a cultural value that stresses a higher degree of independence and self-regulation in individuals. In these cultures, newborns are typically given their own rooms right from day one and are taught to self-soothe and go back to sleep when they wake up at night. A long and lonely (to the collectivist eyes) path to independence lies ahead of the child from then on.
Conversely, the underlying value is interdependence and harmony in collectivistic societies like India. To start with, placing a newborn in a room separate from its parents would be unheard of and a horrifying idea, signaling an unhealthy family situation. The Indian author of this paper even felt judgment from her own family when she chose to let her newborn baby sleep on a bed separate from her! In collectivist societies, parents typically dote on their children, support them in every way and show protection. The idea is to raise their young with all the confidence that they can count on their elders no matter what happens in life.
Anecdote 4: A Dutch parent proudly stated that his 9-year-old son could make his own lunch to take to school. An Indian parent’s reaction was: “why would you do that to your son? That’s what parents are for. Why don’t you let your child enjoy his childhood rather than give him additional responsibilities?”
Expat parents in the Netherlands often feel that Dutch parents take enormous risks in the freedom they give their children. Bicycling to school unattended, without wearing a helmet, is an example. The New York Times paid attention to another one of these practices: “droppings” – taking groups of kids to the woods (sometimes blindfolded) in the evening and asking them to find their way back themselves.
The Alpha and Omega of understanding Dutch society is the emphasis on “autonomy”. The Dutch pedagogue Martinus Langeveld, (1905-1989) exemplifies this attitude. His theory had a prominent place in the training school for teachers in the recent past. In his book “Beknopte theoretische paedagogiek” he mentions three attributes of adulthood, the end result of education: the first and most important one – Self- responsible self-determination. Children should learn to make their own decisions and define their path in life. Overly protective parents and teachers are in the way of this learning process. The second and third attributes give a social context for the first one:
- To be a constructive participant in society. The emphasis is that your freedom ends where it interferes with the freedom of others
- Modest self-possession
Langeveld held the opinion that all adults had a certain room to deviate from what, in general, was defined as constructive participants of society. In line with this self-responsible self-determination, parents allow their kids to take risks. But, of course, this has limits. The Dutch author reveals a secret about “droppings.” “Unbeknownst to the kids, we were watching them from afar to be sure nothing serious could happen. I urge you not to reveal that secret to keep it interesting for the children!”
Interestingly, though self-reliance and independence are equally important values in a culture like the United States, the idea of children riding bicycles without a helmet or the concept of “dropping” would not work there. Being a highly legalistic society, a parent can be sued for negligence in the United States if they even allow children to play in a park unattended. An American expat in the Netherlands asked one of the authors if there were rules around children touching other children or taking others’ toys. He said that in the United States, parents could be sued for their child’s (mis)behavior. This would never be an issue in the Netherlands (or in India or Japan, for that matter). However, this is a sign of the highly legalistic culture in the United States rather than intended to limit independence.
Contrary to Langeveld’s philosophy of education is the one followed in India, influenced by thinkers like Rabindranath Tagore and Swami Vivekananda. The principal goal of Indian education philosophy is creating an essence of universal humanity and the unity of existence. Closely following this primary goal is establishing harmony between creeds and religions. Though the Indian education system has undergone several transformations and influences from different parts of the world, the purpose has always been directed externally to the individual rather than internally focused. Education helps develop the nation or enables an individual to achieve unity with the universe. According to Tagore, “cooperation, selfless activities, love towards fellow humans, and responsibility towards nurturing social relationships is the main purpose of one’s informed mind. This enables the individual to live as a worthy being.”
Early childhood education on self-reliance vs. counting on/serving the other is one of the most important drivers in creating and maintaining a culture’s individualistic vs. collectivistic aspect.
On the other hand, you see an interesting mixture of self-reliance, counting on/serving the other, and reliance on authority in Japan. For example, Japanese primary school children between 6 and 12 who live in the neighborhood form a “going to school together” group and walk to school without parental guidance. One of the oldest children is the group leader and is responsible for the safety of the younger ones.
Authority vs. Collaborator
Anecdote 5: A child living in the United States is quoted to have threatened to call the police if his Indian parents were too strict with him. The parents promptly booked a ticket back to India and are said to have given the child a good thrashing on their way from the airport to their home in India.
Anecdote 6: While shopping in the Netherlands for some hobby items, a child turned to her Indian mother to ask for permission to buy something. The Dutch shopkeeper promptly stopped her and said, “It’s your money; you decide, not your mother.”
In high Power Distance societies like India, there is a definite hierarchy within a parent-child relationship. The parent is the decision-maker and ultimate authority in the family. Good education in a child means obedience and good manners when dealing with adults, even after adulthood. Seva, equivalent to the Chinese Xiao, refers to “long-term bonds of intergenerational reciprocity and affection, in which juniors provide care for their senior parents in old age and after death, as ancestors in return for all of the effort, expense and love their parents expended to producing raise them in infancy and childhood.” Seva is central in the Indian parent-child relationship, requiring support and care from the child to the (grand)parent and the filial duties of a son for his parents.
In traditional Indian society, visible even today, children often do not make decisions that may go against the wishes of their elders. This includes what university to go to, what line of education to pursue, and what career path to choose. In addition, arranged marriages (where the parents choose the spouse for their child) are still a common practice in Indian society.
In 2018, Insider carried an article titled “Dutch parents haggle endlessly with their kids, and teach them an important life skill in the process”. The author writes: “We are bringing the famed “polder model” into our home – in other words, decision-making by consensus). Everyone in the family, including the youngest, has a say. Consensus and compromise make for a happy home. And Dutch children will grow into Dutch adults, and in the workplace, in the Netherlands, anyone and everyone is entitled to their own opinion.”
The Japanese author of this paper mentions her observation of Dutch parenting – a child’s own opinion starts early, grows stronger, and is appreciated. Very early on, a Dutch child is asked, “which color do you want, blue or yellow?” Or, “what do you want, chocolate or vanilla ice cream?”. When a child is able to make a decision, onlookers acknowledge the successful parent with “he/she has his own opinion; you must be proud!”
This entitlement to opinion is about having autonomy, of course, but it is also a sign of the very egalitarian culture that is the Netherlands. Contrary to Indian society, in the Netherlands, parents are not expected to have the last say. Children are certainly not expected to carry out requests without negotiating with their parents.
Caregivers and Providers
Anecdote 7: The Japanese author of this paper reflects on the many aspects of parenting roles she sees in Dutch society. Unlike in Japan, in the Netherlands, fathers are equally involved in dropping and picking up their children to and from school and involved in all the parent-teacher meetings at school. “It is also quite acceptable for male managers to take a week of paternal leave (they have the right to this, and they use this right) when their wife has just given birth.”
Anecdote 8: At a conference that the Indian author of the paper attended, she was shocked to see that the Dutch (male) CEO stopped talking at 15.00 and said, “I need to leave to pick up my daughter from school.”
Each parent’s roles in a child’s upbringing are culturally very different. In Masculine societies like India and Japan, the mother is still the main caregiver, and the father is the main provider. It is quite rare in these cultures to see fathers staying at home to take care of their young or even taking up an equal role in child-rearing. In traditional Indian families, the father’s role was (as is) often that of a provider, protector, teacher, and moral guardian to children. This trend is, of course, changing (albeit very slowly) in both of these societies, thanks to the rise of feminism and the continual attempt to balance gender roles.
However, in more Feminine societies like the Netherlands, both parents take a relatively more equal role in child-rearing. It is quite common for the father to take a break from his career to be the primary caregiver to the child while the mother continues working. Comparatively speaking, one observes more fathers in the playgrounds in the Netherlands than in India or Japan.
Role of Educational Institutions:
Casual and fun vs. formal and serious
Anecdote 9: The Indian author reflects upon school celebrations in India – parents and teachers attend in their best clothes, and the head of school walks in once everyone is seated, usually along a red carpet or escorted by student body heads. In the Dutch school, her children now attend, the head of school once came to a school celebration dressed as a clown!
Anecdote 10: Another reflection by the Indian author: Everything used for the purpose of study or work is given a certain amount of dignity in India – even if they are mere objects. Books are not to be trodden on, and tools for learning are supposed to be treated with respect. Rommelpiet is a celebration in the Netherlands where this naughty mythical character comes in and makes a mess in the children’s classrooms. Children walk in one day to find books, pens, tables, and chairs strewn all over the class floor and covered in toilet paper (luckily, unused). They are then supposed to clear up everything in return for presents. But, of course, it is the teachers themselves that make this “disrespectful” mess – which makes the whole situation even more shocking!
Anecdote 11: In a Dutch school, one of the expat students reported that the language teacher and a boy in class had engaged in a verbal insults competition to see who knew the most insults in the Dutch language.
Though the Dutch anecdotes are quite specific to the Netherlands and not necessarily seen in other societies in the west, the culture of informality is quite visible in the culture. In the Netherlands, very few things cannot be mocked – taking things too seriously is simply not Dutch. The combination of being an egalitarian (low power distance) and collaborative (feminine in Hofstede’s terms) culture makes for a level of casualness that can be a bit too much for those who come from more formal cultures.
In countries like India and Japan (also Germany, Switzerland, Poland, and others), there is an expectation for more formality in the educational space. Teachers are authorities who command respect and carry themselves apart from their students. A teacher seen as bringing himself down to the level of the students simply would not be taken very seriously by their students, leading to a rather chaotic classroom and poorer results.
Anecdote 12: Children in the Netherlands are tested on their English, Math, and Dutch levels continually from the age of 10-13 years of age, which will determine what level of education they will pursue in high school. While this would be considered a major public exam in most countries, taken very seriously and prepared for very thoroughly so that the child attains the best result possible, in the Netherlands, parents are encouraged not to prepare their children for these tests. Instead, they are simply advised to sleep well the previous night and eat a good breakfast before their tests. In addition, children are encouraged to bring candy to snack on during the tests. In some cases, music is played aloud to make the atmosphere more relaxed.
It’s no wonder that research shows that Dutch children are the happiest in the world!
Rote learning vs. Independent thinking
Anecdote 13: The Dutch primary school where the children of the Japanese author attended had a system to develop the autonomy of young children. The system works as follows: the teacher first explains the new materials, and then the children start working on assignments using what they just learned. What surprised the Japanese mother was that children may not ask questions for a certain period of time. They need to solve the situation by themselves first.
In more traditional education systems worldwide, “rote learning” is still the reality. Simply put, rote learning is the memorization of information by repetition. In traditional Indian schools, this is quite prevalent and students are judged based on how accurately they can reproduce the information they have learned. According to an article in India Today, a popular Indian publication, rote learning promotes convergent thinking. “While both divergent and convergent thinking are essential in problem-solving, our education system is more inclined towards testing knowledge than knowledge development.”, says the article about the Indian education system.
To counter the resulting lack of creativity, the Central Board of Secondary Education of India (CBSE) recently announced that “Design Thinking and Innovation” would be incorporated as a core subject from Grade 7 onwards in all Indian schools.
Contrary to the rote learning that is so prevalent in cultures like India and Japan, in the Netherlands, an important skill of a potential university student is the ability to formulate their own opinion on a particular topic- especially when it comes to non-technical subjects like economics, history and geography. In effect, students do not just study a topic. They apply the concepts and are expected to have enough understanding to form their own opinion. In exams in the Netherlands, there are questions to test “reproductie” (knowledge of facts), “toepassing” (application of concepts), and “inzicht” (insights into the facts and concepts).
This can be quite challenging for international students who are used to teachers telling them what to study and how to address a certain topic!
Work, work, work vs. work-life balance
Anecdote 14: According to the Japanese author of this paper, the purpose of the summer holidays is entirely different in Japan and the Netherlands. In Japan, children receive special summer holiday homework – a lot of workbooks and a special project where children can choose their own topic, from creating artwork to making a report on climate change. It is always a stress and struggle for both children and parents to finish all the homework. The Japanese author was shocked to hear from her son that his Dutch teacher had told the class on the last day before the summer holiday, “Everyone, empty your head during the summer so that you have a space to learn new things in the fall. Enjoy your summer!”
In more masculine cultures like India and Japan, people are expected to work hard all the time with little space for leisure and relaxation. On the other hand, in more feminine cultures like the Netherlands, people feel entitled to take care of themselves by having downtime and indulging themselves in enjoyable activities without having any specific objectives. In fact, there is a concept called “Niksen” in Dutch, meaning “Doing nothing”.
“Niksen “literally means to do nothing, to be idle or doing something without any use,” says Carolien Hamming, managing director of CSR Centrum, a coaching center in the Netherlands that helps clients manage stress and recover from burnout. Practicing niksen could be as simple as just hanging around, looking at your surroundings, or listening to music — “as long as it’s without purpose,” she says, and not done to achieve something or be productive.
Anecdote 15: The Indian author of this paper was quite concerned when she first moved to the Netherlands. Her children were used to doing pages of homework every day in India right from when they were six years old. In the Netherlands, she had no idea what was being taught in primary school since the children seldom brought back work! “I was concerned that they would be at a disadvantage because, in the Netherlands, they are simply not used to hard work as seen in Indian schools!”
In cultures like India, there is tremendous pressure put on children to perform well in school, leading to burnout even at ages 14 or 15. In fact, according to the latest report from the National Crime Records Bureau of India (NCRB), suicide rates amongst students were at a five-year high in 2022. In addition, most students cited “failure in examination” as a reason for their choice.
Role models vs. Individuals
Anecdote 16: In Dutch schools, it can happen that teachers, during their breaks, stand outside and smoke. This is quite shocking to expat parents, as teachers are supposed to act as role models to their students in their cultures.
Anecdote 17: An Indian parent chanced upon her children’s teachers at a discotheque in the city, drinking and dancing the night away. While it is perfectly normal for youngsters to have some fun, the fact that they were teachers caused a bit of discord amongst the parents.
In the traditional Indian education system called the “gurukul”, students were entrusted with the care of a “guru” who would take care of their cognitive, physical, emotional, and spiritual development. The “gurus” were highly revered as wise, knowledgeable people, almost akin to the gods. In modern Indian society, while this concept of a “guru” has changed drastically, the respect for a teacher and their pivotal role in shaping future generations remains firmly etched in the people’s psyche.
In fact, Teacher’s Day in India celebrated on September 5 every year, is a day when teachers are honored. Students, old and new, make it a point to wish their teachers and thank them for the role they have played in their development by making little gifts of cards or flowers. The teacher is a figure that is expected to be a role model to their students by displaying exemplary moral values that are then transferred to the students by example.
The situation is slightly different in Japan. The teachers are supposed to be teacher-like 24/7, but their social status is no longer so high. Since the education level of the average parent is as high as that of the teachers at many schools, the teachers are not seen as the intellectual authority. This is also changing slowly in a country like India, but the expectation is that the teacher behaves impeccably in the presence of their students.
This is quite different in a country like the Netherlands, where the teacher is solely expected to show competence in transferring the knowledge and skills to the students in an understandable way, using language and examples that fit the level of students and showing empathy for the diversity in interests and personality of the students.
One-size-fits-all or Child-specific
Anecdote 18: Expat parents in the Netherlands are often surprised that their children branch off into different levels of education right from twelve years of age. They worry that putting them in boxes early in life will deter their future prospects.
Unlike in most countries around the world, the Dutch education system is very much child-specific. As mentioned in Anecdote 12, children who go to the Dutch public school system are continually tested on their English, Math, and Dutch levels right from age 10 to age 13. How they do on these tests determines what level of education they will pursue in high school.
The Dutch education system is divided into multiple levels children can follow according to their capabilities. The highest level, VWO, is meant for children who want to pursue a university education. The middle level, HAVO, is for those who wish to pursue a semi-academic, practical course. Finally, the lower levels, like MAVO, VMBO, etc., are designed for those who want to pursue vocational education.
Many international parents feel concerned that age 12 (when a child moves from primary school to high school) is too early to determine this level for a child. However, Dutch pragmatism permits mobility amongst levels if the child puts in the effort required to stream up from a lower level to a higher one. The child can also go to a lower level in high school if they realize that the other suits them better.
In many ways, the Dutch have made life simpler for those students who don’t necessarily have to go through the stress of a high level of math or science if they would like to do vocational training, for example. This way, students do not have to go through the same stress level since each child has his/her own capability.
This attitude would be unheard of in a culture like India or Japan, where all the children are expected to pursue the same level of education, compete and pass or fail. There is no question of branching off to different levels until at least age 16 in these education systems. This often proves stressful for those children who are not necessarily cut out for a higher level of academics and, in many cases, results in early depression in children.
The competition in India is not limited to the students but exists between schools too. Schools are known to weed out poor performers to maintain a high ranking in the school system, achieved by churning out high-achieving students!
Like in India, graduating from a couple of top-level universities is still a secure ticket for a successful corporate career in Japan. The competition to pass the entrance exam to such universities starts early. There are “cram” schools for prestigious kindergartens and primary schools, and the competition continues through the high school years. As these prestigious schools are concentrated in Metropolitan areas and are very expensive, they are not accessible to many families, so one may say that the competition is not played on a level playing field.
Role of Society:
Free speech vs. Responsible communicator
Anecdote 19: On Valentine’s Day in 2020, an advertisement for the Dutch dating app “Second Love” was published in all tram stations all over the country. The ad openly advertised the possibility for married men and women to have an exciting love affair outside their marital boundaries. While most Dutch turned a blind eye to the ad, a Christian political party in the Dutch province of Groningen made news for being “intolerant” to free speech and liberal thinking.
Anecdote 20: Meanwhile, in India, February 14 always sparks news of protests across the country, with Hindu nationalists condemning the westernization of society and the promotion of immoral values like pre-marital love.
The role of society at large in the education of the young is very different depending on where one lives. In India, for example, any material considered remotely adult is strictly kept for late-night TV shows, adult magazines, and websites to prevent children from being exposed to them. This censorship is used to maintain the desired Indian culture of conservatism and modesty. In fact, one of the guidelines of the Advertising Standards Council of India is to ensure that any advertisement is “not offensive to generally accepted norms and standards of public decency”.
In contrast, the European Advertising Standards Alliance only prescribes in very general terms, that advertising is legal, decent, honest, and truthful, with a due sense of social responsibility, conforming to the principles of fair competition and not impairing public confidence in advertising.
The definition of “decency” and what is considered “social responsibility” are already culturally quite subjective topics but the amount of policing involved in ensuring that advertisements follow societal standards is worth noting. The more important consideration for this paper is how responsible society at large feels about the messages sent out to their youth by public institutions.
Anecdote 21: A Dutch broadcaster, NTR, sparked controversy across the country by interviewing a pro-pedophile activist on prime-time television. The activist shared that he wanted to set up a political party to make sex with children legal. He also openly stated that he was attracted to boys between the ages of 4 and 14 and believed that toddlers as young as 2 or 3 years were developed enough to decide if they wanted to engage in sex.
While this sparked outrage in the Netherlands, the broadcaster stood by their decision to show the episode, with the rationale that subcultures like these exist and hardly came to light. The pedophile activist was also invited by the University of Amsterdam to share his thoughts on pedophilia – “about what it means to live with it, but not act on it.”
Most other cultures that the authors have spoken to have shared disbelief at the broadcast of an interview of this nature because it “normalizes” such behavior in society.
According to the Dutch author of this paper, a structural cultural issue at work is interesting to understand in the context of the rule of law. The Netherlands is situated in The Network cultures in the Culture Clusters as defined by Huib Wursten. The Network Cultures are characterized by low power distance, high Individualism, low masculinity, and medium uncertainty avoidance.
Here are some rules of the game as seen by Network cultures
- It all starts with the acceptance of the autonomy of all stakeholders. In the political field, this is called: “autonomy inside one’s own circle”. The societal “common good” is translated in Network countries as: “shared interest”. A related issue is the concept of truth – in the Netherlands, there are sayings like: “Niemand heeft de waarheid in pacht” (Nobody owns the truth) and “waarheid ligt in het midden” (truth lies in the middle)
- These are secular societies with no generally accepted references about what is good or bad as defined by holy books.
- Instead, these are postmodern societies: influenced by language philosophy and positivism. The core of this lies in the following statement: “The meaning of a proposition is ( derived from ) the method of verification.” In other words, if generally accepted methods can verify a statement, one can conclude if something is right, just, true, or valid. For example, a statement like: “this is a good hammer” is verifiable by agreed-upon methods – measuring impact, weight, grip, etc. On the other hand, a statement like “God is good” is not verifiable because no agreed-upon methods exist even to define concepts like God and good. This thinking can lead to cultural relativism: Who am I that can contradict people’s statements if they refer to a holy book, a revelation, or a tribal tradition:” it all depends on where you are coming from.”
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the moral cornerstone of all individualistic cultures. Starting in the Renaissance in Europe and fully developed in the “Enlightenment,” the individual is the focus of all thinking about morality. All individuals have equal rights. This also extends to minority groups. The formulation explicitly says that the rights are for everybody, not regarding color, race, gender, religious affiliation, and sexual preference.
This all affects morality and policymaking in a postmodern society of autonomous stakeholders.
The way this is taking shape is that, in principle, all societal stakeholders discuss the policy limits and claim their rights. Especially if they feel that the group they identify with has been denied rights in the past and present. In an individualistic Masculine society like the USA, this takes the shape of “identity wars”: minority groups who assertively claim their rights: Afro-Americans, women, Latin Americans, and the LGBTQ communities. They all claim not to be taken into account by the white, heterosexual, male, Anglo-Saxon majority.
This is also happening in the Network cultures. But, because of the feminine culture, the polarization is more moderate than in the Contest cultures. As a result, the decision-makers in postmodern secular feminine societies have difficulty defining boundaries of the belief in “shared interests”. How does one determine what is acceptable and not in societal discourse? How does one arrive at a shared interest in a multicultural society?
The same is the case in discussing sexual preference. The consensus is that it not only concerns the accepted way of lovemaking between men and women in traditional societies. It also extends to the preferences of the LGBTQ community. This is getting more difficult considering the preferences of people attracted to prostitution, porno, or SM practices. The postmodern dilemma is: who are we to define what is normal?
In the case of pedophilia, it is easy to contradict the claim that a two-year-old can choose to have a sexual encounter. This is also the general reaction in society and the media in the Netherlands.
Considering this cultural relativism in the Network Cultures, one could argue that, like in other societies, the Dutch society also educates the young in tolerance rather than moral absolutism.
Permissive Regulation vs. Regulated Permissiveness
Anecdote 22: According to the Indian author of this paper, the Netherlands is a great place for having sensitive conversations since everything is so in your face.
“For example, we visited museums in Amsterdam recently and found ourselves having to explain weed, prostitution, and other things that would be taboo to talk about in India. The kids are surprisingly open to these discussions and we can have very productive conversations with them. One funny case: we had to cross the red light street at one point, and I explained it to them. I told them that some women find themselves in these situations because they simply don’t have other options about trafficking, etc. And….the Indian twist to it…I told them this was why they had to work extra hard and get a good education!”
Anecdote 23: A Dutch parent says: “It was in Antwerp that my 10yr old son was first exposed to the Red Zone. I explained the trade there a bit. My wife said: I’ve never been in such a neighborhood. My son responded, ” Oh, where did the two of you meet then?”
Anecdote 24: The Indian author of this paper refused to send her children to a school with a red light street adjacent to it, while her Dutch colleague cheerfully joked that her teenage son bicycles to school every day through the red light district in Amsterdam!
The pragmatism of the Dutch culture is sometimes very shocking for the expat parent. The prevalence of coffee shops selling marijuana, the red light streets, and the many sex shops and museums in Amsterdam is somewhat of a wonder to many expats who raise families in this country. How do I protect my children from these lurking dangers? Do they need protection from them? Why are these even freely available?
According to the Dutch author of this paper, the rules of the game in Network cultures as the Netherlands continues with law enforcement and the concept of “gedogen”.
- In Network societies, people are reluctant to accept strong law enforcement. In the Netherlands, this is manifested in the shape of “gedogen” – tolerating a certain phenomenon instead of forcefully intervening. The reasoning behind it goes back to the perceived experience in the times of bootleg in the US. If you forbid something, it happens anyway, but in secret. Often these activities get in the grips of criminal gangs profiting from the “forbidden fruits”. By “gedogen“, you can control what is happening to a certain extent. International statistics show that, in many cases, this is successful.
- It gets even more interesting if we take the “Indulgence” dimension into account. In his book: “The Civilizing Process” (Elias, 2000), Norbert Elias described the process of civilization in terms of the development of self-control. The higher the level of civilization, the higher the level of restraint, stability and flexibility. You can see how things have evolved by looking back in time. In his book, “Goede manierlijcke seden (1546)”, Erasmus made the following recommendations for good behavior
- “Do not blow your nose with the same fingers with which you reach into the shared dish;
- Vomiting is no disgrace, provided you don’t get it over other people.
Our view of what is acceptable has come a long way since then. By making some “forbidden fruits” easily available, people tend to lose interest in it. For example, pornography in Denmark was made freely available in the sixties, and in spite of predictions of doom and hell, it did not lead to excessive interest. The same is true for the “soft drugs” in the Netherlands.
Topics like sex, drugs, pornography, prostitution, etc., are sensitive topics in most cultures. In countries like the Netherlands, these topics can easily arise in conversations with your children because of society’s permissive view of them. In fact, in another Network, Culture Denmark, sex is a topic that children openly discuss as young as five years of age. A Danish author, Per Hom Knudsen, published a book titled “How a Baby is Made” as early as 1975, complete with graphical drawings of the act of sex and birth.
This poses the question – who educates the young about sex? Parents? Schools? Or Society?
Anecdote 25: The Indian author of this paper admits to learning about sex while sneaking into her aunts’ romance novels and through teen magazines. However, when it came to educating her children, she took advantage of the fact that they had been exposed to farm animals early on in life.
Anecdote 26: The Japanese author of this paper does not recall having talked about sex with her parents in her youth, nor had she learned about it officially at school. She mostly learned it from friends. She also did not explicitly talk about it with her children, but her children gladly shared what they learned at school with her.
In many cultures where there is a certain awkwardness regarding discussing topics like sex, parents often conveniently leave it up to the school biology lessons or conversations that children have with their friends to get them up to speed.
Anecdote 27: A mother of the classmate of the then 5-yr-old son of the Japanese author was a surrogate for a lady who could not bear one. “We all knew each other. This surrogate mother explained to the children, “A baby of Mrs. X is sleeping in my belly. When the baby wakes up, it will go home with Mrs. X. ” Children totally accepted this.” The Japanese author was impressed by this age-appropriate matter-of-fact way of communication by a Dutch mother.
Competition vs. Collaboration
Anecdote 28: An expat student in the Netherlands complained to her mother, “We all got medals. What’s the point of that? Why did I work so hard if everyone was going to get a medal?”
The level of competition against others or living your own life encouraged in a society comes from every level – parents, educational institutions, and society at large. Compared to the number of competitions that a student in Masculine societies like the United States, India, or Japan go through, there are very few in more Feminine societies like the Netherlands. Despite this fact, many Dutch are quick to point out that the Netherlands brings home the most sports medals per capita during the Olympics.
The difference lies in the expectation of society. In extremely competitive societies like Japan, perfection is a never-ending goal to be constantly aspired to, and anyone stopping short of perfection is less than worthy of society. The Japanese term “karoshi” meaning “overworked to death,” got international attention a few years ago about the culture of extreme competition leading to overwork. In India, competition stems from an overpopulated country struggling over limited resources and a centuries-old struggle with class and caste differences. Education and competition are the only ways to overcome some class and caste boundaries.
Comparatively speaking, countries like the Netherlands seem to have a more relaxed attitude towards achievement due to a combination of employment demand and workers’ rights. In the Netherlands, one can be competitive if one wants to be (intrinsic motivation), but it is also perfectly alright to stay out of the rat race and focus on work-life balance instead. And when someone works very hard and makes long hours, it is not to over-compete with others but more for the joy of using one’s capability to the fullest. This means that educational institutions and society at large do not inculcate competition in the young. Instead, it is entirely up to individual households, parents, and children. In fact, the Dutch culture prescribes an attitude of not standing out in a crowd. “Doe maar gewoon, dan doe je al gek genoeg”, goes the Dutch saying, “Be normal, and that is crazy enough”.
This is quite a contrast to, say, the United States culture, which prescribes for its citizens an attitude of standing out wherever they go. This is taught in children by parents, educational institutions, and society at large.
Every society educates its young to become productive members in its own way. Parents, educational institutions, and society at large play varying roles. Depending on where you come from, you see the weight of education being carried by one party or the other.
How much weight a particular party carries in educating the child and what values are passed on through the education process differs drastically across cultures. Parents who raise their children in a multicultural environment or as third culture kids need to be aware of these differences.
This paper has tried to touch upon the various roles that parents, educational institutions, and society at large play in educating younger members and the cultural factors that play a role in the values instilled. This has been done through anecdotes collected from different expatriate families who have cared to share their experiences.
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About the authors:
Divya Susan Varkey is an Intercultural trainer, coach and lecturer based in Den Haag. Born and raised in India, she has lived in the Middle East and now raises her children in the Netherlands with her Spanish husband. Her other published articles include “The Great Indian Democracy” and “A Global Pandemic in India”.
Masako Kato is an intercultural trainer and coach based in Tilburg, the Netherlands. Born and mainly raised in Japan, she has lived in the US as an expat kid and an exchange student and currently lives and works in The Netherlands, where she brought up her two children with her German husband. She published a series of articles on “How to work in corporate Netherlands” for a Japanese audience in the bi-monthly magazine of the Japanese Chamber of Commerce in The Netherlands.
Huib Wursten is an internationally recognized cultural expert. He consulted private and public organizations in 85 countries. He wrote 26 articles on the way culture impacts organizational behavior. His 2020 book “The 7 Mental images of National Culture. Leading and Managing in a globalized world” was highly acclaimed.