LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
We've been checking in from time to time with Dan Kois, who's spending a year moving around the world with his wife and two daughters in a quest to find out from various cultures what makes a family. He joins us now to tell us what he discovered from his recent stay in the Netherlands. Hey, Dan.
DAN KOIS: Hello. Thank you for having me back.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Pleasure to have you back. You spent time in New Zealand when we talked to you. And you just recently left the Netherlands. What makes a Dutch family click?
KOIS: Well, the most obvious thing is biking, of course.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Of course (laughter).
KOIS: Everyone bikes. We were really amazed at how quickly our family picked it up when you are in a society that privileges biking over other forms of transportation. It makes it completely safe, fun and easy to bike everywhere. Everyone does it.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: There are all these studies that declare Dutch children the happiest in the world. Is this true?
KOIS: We found them quite happy, yes. And one reason that we found them to be so is they really seem to have a great deal of independence. One reason they have that independence is because of the biking. You don't have to beg your parents for rides everywhere. You can just set off on your bike, and your parents feel like it's safe because it is really safe. But we also found that Dutch kids and Dutch families really seem to include children in their decision-making. So they feel like they have a real voice and say in what the family is doing.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: How does that work?
KOIS: There's, like, a term for it that Dutch families use that also is quite popular within Dutch businesses and Dutch organizations. It's the polder model. And it's named for the polders, which are the tracts of land in the Netherlands that have been reclaimed from the sea via dikes and levees and dams. But in order to do that, you have to have a whole community working together and agreeing on how the water management system is going to work. If one person doesn't do their job, everyone's land is under water. So this has evolved into a decision-making structure that many Dutch organizations, including Dutch families, adhere to called the polder model, which simply means everyone discusses every big decision. Everyone comes to a consensus, no matter how long it takes. Everyone then follows that decision.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So how does that play out? I mean, did you try the polder model?
KOIS: We did. It turns out we're really bad at it.
KOIS: As an American family, we are more - we're parents, and we like to be autocrats. And so it was really hard to adapt to this model in which we are meant to include our children in the sort of big decisions of our family.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So give me an example.
KOIS: So like many American families, we struggle with the issue of our kids and screen time.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Of course.
KOIS: So we decided the way a Dutch family would handle this is they would try and set rules that are not just what the parents think screen time should be but that incorporate what the kids think screentime should be. And we should negotiate these rules at great and tortuous length...
KOIS: ...To the point that we want to pull our hair out. But the kids feel like they have more say in the process. It did yield results in the end, which are that the kids got - well, the result was that the kids got way more screen time than we thought they should have. But it did after this, like, - oh, God - like, two-hour negotiating session. It was like those old, like, NATO negotiations where, first, you have to agree on the shape of the table.
KOIS: But we did eventually come to a resolution that felt unsatisfactory to us but more satisfactory to the kids. And I guess if that happens in, like, every major family decision, of course the kids are happier.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. You left D.C. to go on this journey to discover if there was a better way to parent because you said you felt, in a major metropolitan city in the United States like D.C., you were all overstretched. So are you learning things that you can apply when you get back?
KOIS: I hope so. I mean, I do think the polder model, as annoying as it was to us, should be something that influences us as we go on and especially as our kids get older. And as unpleasant as that may be for natural-born autocrats like us, it's something we should be doing and want to get better at.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Dan Kois - he's a writer traveling for his project How to be a Family. Thank you so much.
KOIS: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.