Recently Peter and I welcomed friends from the Netherlands for a weeklong visit. William and Maria were stationed here with NATO in the 90s, and we became fast friends. They moved back to the Netherlands in 1995, but live near Peter’s sister, which means we visit them nearly every time we go across the Big Pond. Finally it was their turn to come visit, so we planned a week of exciting activities—from boating on the Lynnhaven River to biking on the boardwalk.
William and Maria reconnected with a few old friends while in town, many of whom they hadn’t seen in a decade or more. Of course, the topic turned to kids, as it always does when people of our generation gather. Parents compare their kids’ progress in life the way farmers discuss their crops—only there’s a lot more emotion invested in the “growth” of our own flesh and blood.
Notice I used quotes around that word. For some of us, our kids are taking the slow road to adulthood. Yes, we can blame the economy partly for their difficulties, but I think there are societal influences at work. Our Dutch friends commented that it seems more young adults have problems in the U.S. compared to NL. So we talked often about the differences between our countries. I definitely think we have a lot to learn from the Dutch.
For example, their public transportation is awesome. In fact, I think that having a network of busses, trams, and trains that go everywhere helps kids develop responsibility sooner. Instead of relying on Mom and Dad to ferry them to soccer practice, friends’ homes, and the movies, Dutch kids just head out on their own and learn to fend for themselves at a young age.
The age for drinking beer is 16 in the Netherlands. I know it sounds incredible, but teaching youth to drink responsibly is inherent in Dutch culture. In addition, Dutch kids can’t drive until they’re 18, so if someone drinks too much, the worst thing that can happen is he’ll ride his bike into a canal. The bottom line is kids experiment with alcohol. When we turn alcohol into a forbidden fruit, it only becomes more desirable. Even university presidents agree that the must-be-21-to-drink rule is not working.
Another Dutch idea that makes sense to me is four-week paid vacations for workers. Wow, can you imagine how that would impact our health and well being? How fabulous it would be to have more time off from work—time to be with family, travel, go for nature walks, row a boat. The fact is most of us here in the U.S. are overworked and overstressed. This results in poor health, overeating, alcoholism, and even domestic violence. In fact, studies show that people who take annual vacations live longer. And I bet they’re happier, too!
Dutch businesses and schools also offer a daily coffee break for employees—usually mid-morning. It’s a chance to get to know your colleagues, to share personal accomplishments, or just to talk about what you did over the weekend. How civilized—and what a terrific way to increase goodwill among employees.
I think we can learn some lessons from the Dutch, starting with taking the time to get to know our colleagues at work better. A good friend of mine who volunteers on a number of boards always starts meetings with a “check-in” during which each person shares something important that’s happening in his or her life at the moment. It’s an incredible way to build relationships as well as remind ourselves that we’re all human, and we can always use a little encouragement and appreciation.
We Americans tend to be so independent, so separate from each other. In this time of change and upheaval, tearing down fences instead of building them will have a more positive impact on our society, don’t you think? We should also look beyond our borders at how other countries handle quality-of-life issues, and even if we can’t change things on a large scale, we can effect change in our own backyard. Let’s start by making time for small talk, for getting to know each other a little better. I think our interactions with the people we meet each day are the measure of how successful we are in life. Yes, we’re all busy and distracted, but taking a coffee break from the manic pace of modern society will do us all good, don’t you think?
And one more thing—life’s short. Take a vacation!
PS - Speaking of public transportation, please vote to study light rail in Va. Beach. Let’s be visionaries!