Jessica Joelle Alexander on the Danish way of parenting (and living) (#36)

Two young fish are swimming along when they pass an older fish. The older fish greets them as he swims by, saying: “how’s the water boys?”. The younger fish swim on confused, until one of them finally asks the other: “what is water?”.  

Fish can’t see the water. Painters can’t smell the paint. We get so used to the things in our environment that we often don’t even notice them. This is especially true of culture. Our way of doing things are so normal and automatic to us because we are surrounded by people who do things the same way. It can be helpful step out of our own culture to see if our way of doing things are serving us as well as we’d like. In this episode we’ll be doing exactly that.  

Today we’re talking to Jessica Joelle Alexander to explore Danish culture and what the happiest country in the world has to say about parenting. Even though the conversation focuses on parenting, the principles we talk about can be applied at any age.  

Jessica Joelle Alexander is a Bestselling Author, Parenting Expert, Columnist, Speaker and Cultural Researcher. Her work has been featured in the NY Times, Time, BBC World News, Vanity Fair, NPR, Huffington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic and many more. Her books have been published in over 29 countries. She has a regular column in The Copenhagen Post and she currently researches and writes for UC Berkley’s Toward Belonging Center

Jessica’s book The Danish Way of Parenting is one of the most sold parenting books of all time. She has been a spokesperson for LEGO on the power of play and gives talks around the world on parenting, leadership and wellbeing. As you’ll see in this conversation, she is extremely passionate about the human condition, building character values and creating a more compassionate society. 

We hope you enjoy this eye-opening conversation with Jessica Joelle Alexander. 

You can listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify and Simplecast

Show Notes

2:39 – first impressions about Danish culture.
6:24 – after reading hundreds of parenting books, Jessica still preferred the advice from her Danish family.
8:13 – the birth of the book.
9:49 – our default setting for parenting.
12:7 – authoritarian vs authoritative style of parenting.
15:7 – free play is better than structured activities for kids.
18:0 – we want our kids to win but happiness is not about winning.
20:30 – we are scared that our kids fall behind if they are just left to play.
23:37 – how play creates an internal locus of control.
26:4 – self-esteem is not built by giving praise.
31:25 – cultural difference in values, such as humility.
36:49 – the happiest country in the world doesn’t like stories with happy endings.
40:4 – sad endings normalise all feelings and improve emotional intelligence.
41:40 – training empathy as a skill.
45:13 – cooperation is more important than competition.
46:55 – importance of reframing.
48:47 – difference in how Danish people approach divorce.
51:53 – Hygge: we-fulness.
55:57 – get in touch with Jessica.

Links to References

Denmark Top 3 happiest country – 40 years in a row 

Spanking illegal in Denmark 

Internal versus external locus of control 

Dale Carnegie 

Christian Erikson’s heart attack in Euro 2020 Denmark vs Finland 

Klassens tid 

Survival of the Fittest versus Survival of the Friendliness 

Reframing Technique 

Negativity Bias 

American Culture versus Danish Culture when it Comes to Divorce Article by Jessica Joelle Alexander 


Orchid and the Dandelion by W. Thomas Boyce MD 

Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking by Susan Cain 

The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Anderson (Original Sad Version) 

Key Quotes

“They do things really different in Denmark.” 

“The kids were one of the first things that stood out for me in Denmark [as being different in Danish culture].” 

“I had a whole library of parenting books.” 

“When you have your first child you are completely a mess.” 

“Denmark had been voted in the top three for happiest country in the world for 40 years in a row.” 

“Maybe they are happy because of the way they raise their kids.” 

“Happy kids grow up to be happy parents who have happy kids.” 

“We return to what we learned from our parents and from our culture.” 

“What are my defaults settings, what will I do when I’m stressed and pushed to the limit?” 

“The Danish style of parenting is very authoritative – a very respect-based parenting style.” 

“Spanking has been illegal for over 20 years in Denmark.” 

“Why are you so obsessed with discipline? Let’s just manage issues.” 

“In Denmark play is the most important thing a child can do.” 

“They think it’s strange that you can over-program a child.” 

“Winning doesn’t have to be the definition of our personality and worth.” 

“Kids learn at different rates…we are not standardised boxes.” 

“People who have an internal locus of control have less anxiety and stress.” 

“The more kids are allowed to play the more they develop an internal locus of control.” 

“Praise for the effort and don’t over-praise.” 

“In Danish schools there is a difference between Self Esteem and Self Confidence.” 

“Self Confidence is the things you can do….accolades, awards.” 

“Self Esteem is the things you can’t see – hobbies you like, relationships you have.” 

“To rest well within yourself” 

“They are much more comfortable dealing with all themes of life…life doesn’t always have a happy ending.” 

“All emotions make up our life.” 

“It’s often the adults that are afraid to talk about difficult subjects.” 

“It’s okay to feel sad.” 

“In Danish schools they teach children how to soothe each other.” 

“They learn in their culture if someone is hurt not to hesitate, you go and help.” 

“Empathy is something you experience, you have to practice.” 

“An hour dedicated to just the class’s wellbeing.” 

“When we really hear someone else it does change things.” 

“We are born with the wires for empathy, we just have learn how to connect the wires.” 

“Danish Culture is good at reframing, focusing on what you can do rather than what you can’t.” 

“Step-parents are called “bonus parents” in Denmark…reframing in their language.” 

“Hygge is like a psychological space for your family……anything that is divisive you leave out, it’s a team effort, being present in the moment with the ones you care about.” 

“Danes evolve mindfulness into we-fulness.” 

About the author

Divan and Mark are co-hosts of the Candour Communication Podcast where we discuss interpersonal communication and all the human stuff that gets in the way.