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Cory Hersh

Bucknell in Denmark 2016
Final Paper

When taking an in depth look at Danish culture as a part of the Bucknell in

Denmark program, it is hard not to adopt the motto that “culture determines

normal.” This extends into how Danes approach childhood because their main goal

(just like most Americans) is to make sure that children assimilate into the culture

as easily as possible once they are older. Danish culture, however is much different

from that in America, so it is to be expected that Danish childhood is as well.

Exploring Danish culture and childhood in terms of family, society, relationships and

education will illustrate how unique of an experience it is to grow up in Denmark.

Danish childhood starts in the family as parents are the leading agents in the

child rearing process. To begin with, parents in Denmark tend to value different

things in terms of how they go about interacting with their children than parents in

America. Both American and Danish parents want their children to end up being

independent and competent when they are ready to go out in the real world on their

own. However, while Americans value that independence, they tend to restrict their

children’s’ actions in childhood. Danes on the other hand value autonomy even at a

young age which definitely flies in the face of certain rearing practices that

Americans might be used to. Danes want their children to experience risk because

they feel that it is a learning experience and this is evident in the lack of helicopter

parenting in Danish culture as well as the types of schools that they tend to send

their children to (which will be further explained later on). This willingness to allow

their children to experience risk is also a result of an increased amount of trust that
parents have in their children and also in the other people in Danish society. This

trust is in stark contrast with American values because we tend to watch over our

children’s every move and we definitely do not trust other people when it comes to

our children.

Chris Boyatzis does a lot of research on the differences in parenting between

Danish moms and American moms. Boyatzis studied the differences in parenting

through quantitative surveys, a photo-reaction task, qualitative interviews, and

naturalistic observations. Throughout his research, the overwhelming results have

been that while American moms focus on a ‘concerted cultivation’ style of raising

their children, Danes treat their children as “competent active agents in their own

development” (Boyatzis, 6/8/16). What this means is that American parents feel

that it is necessary to be active themselves in planning how their children learn and

what their children learn. This process involves a lot of effort and thus, creates a lot

of worry in the parents about the outcome of their child based on what they are

doing to help them. Danes on the other hand don’t tend to treat children much

differently than they would another competent adult. They believe that children will

learn necessary processes while being “emancipated from over supervision”

(Boyatzis, 6/8/16). In the end of the study, Danes tended to be more okay with

their children experiencing risk (although there is certainly a difference between a

‘risk’ and a ‘hazard’), they encouraged more autonomy in their children, and they

also tended to discipline their children less than their American counterparts.

One thing that perfectly exemplifies Danish parents’ relative comfort with risk

are the types of play structures that children have access to on playgrounds,

especially this one red climbing structure at Egoskov Castle. The playground at

Egoskov castle is known for its size and various play structures. The biggest
attraction is a very tall red structure made out of ropes that allows children to climb

however high they feel comfortable with. The very top is as tall as some trees and

kids would climb all the way up there while their parents sat on the side and chatted

amongst themselves, not even paying their children much attention. This structure

would be an American parent’s nightmare and probably wouldn’t be allowed on

most playgrounds in the US unless parents signed a waiver beforehand to ensure

that they wouldn’t sue if something were to happen to their children while playing

on the structure. Neither would American parents simply it calmly by the side of the

playground and only glance at their children occasionally. They would be standing

right by the side of the structure constantly looking at their children and telling

them repeatedly to be careful. Americans culture is simply different because in the

US parents often worry about what may happen (a ‘what-if’ culture), whereas Danes

view this play as educational and think that their children can learn about

themselves and push themselves through more unsupervised play on risky

structures like this one.

The importance of developing autonomy in Danish children isn’t something

only shared by Danes either, but it does fly in the face of many American cultural

values. An article entitled, “Why Are Little Kids in Japan So Independent?” outlines

exactly that point and further substantiates the fact that culture is what regulates

what is normal. Little kids in Japan, as young as age 9, are allowed to ride the

subway and run errands by themselves and parents trust both their children and the

people that they may see on their way. Danes do the same thing, as many times

you will see younger children riding trains and buses by themselves without

parents. The sense of trust that parents have in their children as well as the people

they encounter is something utterly absent in American culture. It teaches the kids
in Japan and Denmark how to be independent as well as how to navigate without

the help of a parental figure. These children may be learning much more valuable

skills than the kids in America who are constantly sheltered and looked over by their

parents. In America, kids taking the train by themselves at the age of 9 would be

gawked at and people might even think that they have bad parents, but this is

simply a difference in cultural normality.

Teaching children about how to be independent is also important from a

cultural standpoint in terms of relationships. Danes tend not to focus on

relationships and getting married on the same level of importance as Americans do.

Marianne stated that it is definitely her expectation to marry someone and have

children down the line, however finding someone to actually marry is less important

than having a partner. Scott McClure, a former Bucknellian, told the Bucknell in

Denmark group that it was “his American side that caused him to propose” to his

long-time Danish girlfriend. He said it was “more acceptable in Denmark to have a

child out of wedlock” and that it wasn’t abnormal to be a single parent (6/8/16). In

America, it is often frowned upon to have not found a significant other to marry at

some point in one’s life. Therefore, this is another cultural normality in Denmark

that children must be prepared for due to the fact that it isn’t truly necessary to find

someone else to “complete” a person, but rather that it is okay to be independent

and not tied down by the bonds of marriage that are so prevalent in the US.

The second most important influence on childhood is the education system in

Denmark and it is definitely much different from what most Americans are used to

as well. Most Danes send their children to ‘preschool’ programs starting as early as

one-year-old. These programs, however, aren’t the typical preschool type of

education that many Americans are used to. Instead, it is structured around free
play and parents choose from various types of places to send their children. All

child care places in Denmark embrace the philosophy of ‘en god barndom’ or the

good childhood. It is important to Danes that their children all get to experience

this good childhood and thus their childhood education system is structured very

uniquely. They have a choice to send their children to a Bornehavn (the most

similar to preschool in America – still VERY different) or to a nature/forest school.

Both types off preschools focus on free play and allowing kids to be active in their

own learning process, however the forest and nature schools tend to allow the

children even more freedom.

Bornehavns are fairly normal in that parents drop their kids off early in the

morning and the kids go to their designated classrooms and put their stuff in their

cubbies. That’s where things start to get different as kids abasically get to choose

their activities for the rest of the day. Children don’t have to stay in one classroom

or stay with their peers in their group. Instead, they can choose to stay in the

classroom and play or head outside without waiting for the teachers (rather,

pedagogues in Denmark). There are always pedagogues around, but children are

left to their own devices to figure out what they want to do and who they want to do

it with. With the exception of lunch time and field trips, children determine their

activities every day. The playgrounds at Bornehavns aren’t necessarily safety

regulated like those in America either. There are generally rope swings and other

things like that that allow for a certain level of risk for the children to learn about

their limits and what they can and can’t do. The field trips that classes take at

Bornehavns also aren’t like those in the US where parents are notified a week in

advance and have to sign a permission slip (Danes would find this process hilarious

and completely unnecessary). Instead, the pedagogues simply discuss amongst
themselves what they think would be a good activity to do on a whim, whether its

riding bikes to a nearby park or walking to another Bornehavn. Often children are

allowed to cross main roads on the way to these destinations and they are often

only accompanied by a single pedagogue. These things would make an American

parent squirm especially in the absence of a permission slip because they wouldn’t

necessarily know where their children are at all times.

Forest and nature schools are preschools where kids spend the majority of

their time outside and literally in large expanses of nature and forest. Kids are

allowed to venture on their own far off into wooded areas in the absence of their

pedagogues. When things go wrong (as they inevitably will) like someone falls and

scrapes their arm or, at worst, breaks something, the kids make sure to go get a

pedagogue to take care of their fallen peer. In this way, the children are both

responsible for their own play and safety as well. They learn responsibility as well

as what happens when they go past their own limits. Many Danish parents and

pedagogues will joke that kids won’t learn unless they get a hurt a few times first.

Another interesting fact about these forest schools is the sheer amount of things

kids are allowed to do. There are usually sections where the kids are allowed to use

real tools such as saws and knives to cut branches or whittle sticks to their heart’s

content. While there are certainly pedagogues watching the children use these

tools, they don’t hover over the children and treat them with the respect they

deserve as they are competent with these tools. Kids climb trees, venture off

without supervision, and use tools and it is completely normalized. No Dane bats an

eyelash when they hear about these things because it is perfectly regular in their

An article in the Washington Post written by Clint Edwards and entitled

“Lessons from ‘The Goonies,’ and from the loss of unsupervised time for kids”

perfectly outlines what the Danes value for their children in comparison to what has

grown to be normal in America. Edwards talks about how when he watched the

movie ‘The Goonies’ with his son, his son asked the very pertinent question, “where

are their parents?” In America, this is completely the correct question to ask

because it is very unlikely that in today’s world, kids would be able to go off on their

own and play or have adventures without the constant supervision of parents.

Parents in America have become so over protective that they don’t allow their

children to engage in important behaviors that occur when they go off on their own

with friends. Danes obviously feel the exact opposite of American parents as they

incorporate this free play and “alone-time” into their educational system. Allowing

children to head off into wooded areas in groups of friends without being constantly

supervised allows them to have their own experience like the kids in ‘The Goonies’

(minus the danger of booby traps and dead pirates of course!).

An additional factor of extreme importance in Danish culture and childhood is

the implementation of their sexual education programs. Danes value sexual

education and are not afraid of telling their kids, even at a young age, about sex,

STDs, and contraceptives. The higher importance of teaching children about sexual

education coincides with a bunch of positive data concerning teen pregnancy and

abortion rates in Denmark. In an article outlining these statistics, per 1000 girls

aged 15-19 years old, 53 gave birth in the US whereas only 7 gave birth in

Denmark. Additionally, per 1000 women of child-bearing age, only 12.2 aborted

their pregnancy as opposed to 16.9 in America as of 2011 (C. Boyatzis, 2011). As

told in a lecture by Heidi Vikkelso Nielson (6/4/16), children are more likely to be
smart about engaging in sex if they choose to do so if there is mandatory sex

education in schools as well as an abundance of adults willing to answer their

children’s questions. Nielson also noted that there is a sex line in Denmark that kids

can call to inquire about anything. Questions can range from “how do I best

pleasure my partner?” to “I think I am gay, what do I do?” In a society with such

openness and less privacy concerning sexual activity, the culture encourages that

childhood should include learning about these necessary factors of life.

Another important factor in terms of Danish culture and how children are

raised is the society and the ways in which people generally interact. Danes’

relatively carefree attitude probably stems from their ability to live in relative

comfort and stability with the knowledge that their higher taxes net them free

health care and education. This happy-go-lucky nature pervades all parts of Danish

culture, especially when it comes to alcohol. The drinking age, at least for beer, is

lowered to 16 and there are open container laws that allow people to drink outside

in public places. It is not out of the ordinary to see youths drinking in public (or

anyone for that matter). Many people will go to a park or street food and have a

couple drinks even during the work week because everything is much more relaxed

and less stressful.

Alcohol pervades Danish culture thoroughly and has simply become a part of

life. For example, the article, “Men can now urinate on Stroget…legally,” in the

Copenhagen post, outlines how men are allowed to urinate on the street during a

music festival called Distortion now without getting fined if caught by the police.

This new law and placement of “mobile urinals” enables people (well, at least men)

to drink alcohol and not worry about peeing in public. Instead of making people

responsible for how much they drink or their actions due to how much they drink,
the Danish government just made it more acceptable to both drink and urinate in

public. Additionally, as told by Kari Gustafson in a lecture (6/8/16), alcohol even

permeates youth culture and is encouraged by society. Videos that are shown to

adolescents and their parents in order to get them to apply to specific high schools

make sure to touch upon partying and alcohol in addition to the academic programs

and facilities available to the kids. It is important to the Danes that their children

will be socially active as well as academically so that they become well-rounded

individuals. This tactic is almost the exact opposite of what is done to appeal to

parents and kids in America. Colleges do everything they can to downplay the

prevalence of alcohol and partying and emphasize the academic benefits of

attending an institution.

On the topic of taxes and how Danes live less stressfully than most

Americans, two Danes in their mid-20s spoke to the Bucknell in Denmark class and

said that they “[didn’t] worry about 20 years down the road” or “saving money”

(Anders and Marianne, 6/2/16). Those sentiments would shock many Americans

(and did!), whose entire existence is filled with worry about how comfortable

monetarily they will be 10 or 20 years down the line. It is not possible to relax

because Americans need to be prepared to pay an expensive medical bill or to put

their children through college in addition to simply providing for themselves and

their families. Chris Boyatzis joked to the class that the second his daughter was

born, he had to start thinking about the cost of sending her to college down the line.

While comical at that age, it is not preposterous to worry about such things in

American culture, whereas Danes have the luxury of not having to worry about

paying for education ever (or at least for the most part).
Obviously Danish children grow up in a much different culture than do

American children as would be expected in different countries. It is the effects of

growing up in a certain culture that dictate and ultimately shape how children are

raised and who they eventually become. Through the lenses of education, society,

relationship and family, children in all cultures are shaped by what is normal in their

country or place of origin. What may seem odd to someone from a different culture

is simply a reflection of different morals and needs that face those with differing



Studying abroad in Denmark, even for a measly 3-week period, definitely had

an effect on my views about my own American culture. While some of my views

have changed, others have been strengthened as a result of being tested by

conflicting with the views of another culture. Additionally, the presence of Madison

on our trip really allowed me to see a side of things (politically) that I usually do not

hear or see much about. Going to a liberal arts institution like Bucknell and growing

up in the suburb of Beachwood, Ohio I had never really been exposed to many

conservative viewpoints, but having her on the trip to look at things in Denmark

through a few different lenses allowed me to really learn a lot about Denmark,

America, and most importantly myself.

To begin with, there are certainly things that being in Denmark made me

appreciate more about American culture. The things that I appreciate in America

are less a result of disagreeing with Danish practices and more that I respect that
there are different ways to go about certain things. For example, I think that in the

American preschool system, it may be important for kids to start being taught in an

educational way because it will start preparing them for the rest of their educational

journey. Most American schools practice classroom settings with lectures

throughout an entire day’s period, so it seems almost necessary to start preparing

kids for that type of education from a young age. I wonder whether kids who had

the freedom to roam around throughout their younger years would be able to sit still

in an American classroom later in life. Perhaps, however, that very statement that I

just made about being able to “sit still” is yet another American cultural construct

that may or may not have anything to do with a child’s ability to learn. Additionally,

I respect the rights afforded to parents in America in that they are allowed to raise

their children the way that they believe is right. Whether the way parents choose to

raise and discipline their children is agreed upon by all or only some, I think it

should be up to the parents (within reason of course) to make the decisions for

themselves. I don’t know whether I think the government should have a place

within how parents choose to raise their children.

In terms of things that I now tend to agree less with in America, there are

certainly a few. For example, like Denmark I now believe that sex education should

be mandatory in all schools starting at a young age. It makes no sense to shelter

children from simple facts of life that could protect them should they decide to

engage in sexual behavior. Some parents would obviously oppose their children

being exposed to such information, especially at the young ages that Danes start

teaching their children (as Madison definitely said she would be). However, the

overwhelming statistics show that kids are smarter about engaging in sexual

behavior when they are well-taught about the process of sex itself as well as
learning about contraceptives and how to protect themselves from STDs and

pregnancy. Many parents in America tend to think that if they don’t teach their

children about sex, then their children won’t engage in the behavior, but that

thinking has shown to be ineffective and even dangerous. I also think that

American parents should follow in the Dane’s lead and stop being “helicopter

parents.” Kids are competent and capable of taking care of themselves and getting

hurt (within reason) is a necessary part of learning one’s own boundaries.

I’m extremely glad that I got to have this experience and I won’t ever forget,

especially since I have a 70-page journal to look at and remind me of everything I

did! It was so unique from being a student at Bucknell because we got to immerse

ourselves in a completely new culture. Sure, it wasn’t as much of a culture shock as

going somewhere like South Africa or Japan, however there are so many things that

the Danes do differently than those of us in America. You just don’t get the same

level of cultural diversity by walking around at Bucknell. There are those of us from

different backgrounds who were raised differently and who have different views, but

we are all Americans with generally the same cultural background because of that

underlying American in all of us. It was simply amazing to see how surprised Danes

were when we told them about things that were generally normal in America, like

how even preschools in the US are fairly educational and structured by the teacher

instead of the kids!


Boyatzis, Chris. Presentation on Parenting in Denmark vs. US. 6/8/16
“Why Are Little Kids in Japan So Independent.” Atlantic City Lab Website.

September 28, 2015

McClure, Scott. Discussion about Parenting and Living in Denmark with his

Girlfriend. 6/8/16

Edwards, Clint. “Lessons from ‘The Goonies,’ and from the loss of unsupervised

time for kids.” The Washington Post

Boyatzis, Chris. Statistics on Danish pregnancies and abortions. 2011

Neilson, Heidi. Discussion about Sex Education in Denmark. 6/4/16

“Men can now urinate on Stroget…legally.” The Copenhagen Post. March 19, 2013

Gustafson, Kari. Lecture on Adolescence in Denmark. 6/8/16

Anders and Marianne. Discussion about life in Denmark for Anders and Marianne.