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Searching for Happiness with a child in Copenhagen

by Jenny McBain

Perhaps my nine-year-old son has the makings of a therapist.  A Scottish friend was hosting us in his deluxe apartment in Edinburgh’s Royal Mile the ancient street which wends its way from Edinburgh Castle to Holyrood Palace.   In addition to owning a number of desirable properties, my friend is in possession of a title and sports a   "Sir" in front of his name; but wealth did not buy him happiness feeling distinctly discontent when he sought my son’s council. 

“Ruairidh (Roory), what would you do if you were sixty years old and you had no wife, no children and no job that you really enjoyed?” he asked him.

Without missing a beat, Ruairidh framed his reply with the innocent wisdom that is peculiar to the very young.  “I would try to be like a child, to be happy”, he said.  

But are the majority of  kids really happy? 

Measuring happiness is a tricky business; you may as well try to catch a butterfly with a hula-hoop.   Yet happiness and well-being are being touted as a new currency to be assessed and scored in international league tables alongside Gross Domestic Product.   According to UNICEF’s evaluations, the Scandinavians and the Dutch lead the pack when it comes to the nurturing of their young. And we in the UK and the U.S. are languishing somewhere at the bottom of the third division.  So I set out on a vacation with a mission:  I wanted to find out why the Danes- and their children- are so darned happy. 

After a short flight across the North Sea and a swift train journey , Ruairidh and I found ourselves slap bang in the middle of Copenhagen, where ethnic delis and Danish bakeries abound, as do, cyclists. 

In fact, there were bicycles everywhere and wide cycle lanes teemed with purposeful peddlers.  Free city bikes were there for the borrowing and a host of sleeker, more expensive models was stacked outside a hire shop next to the central railway station. Our first lesson in Danish culture was that jay walkers take their lives in their hands. You really have to look out for bicycles as much as you do for cars and buses.  

We settled into our hotel- a chic boutique establishment called the Square- and surveyed the city. Copenhagen has a pleasing skyline, largely comprised of solid stone buildings adorned with the occasional decorative dome or spire.  It was constructed over centuries, utilising the proceeds gleaned from its prime position as a trading nation;  even its contemporary buildings reflect a cultural concern for quality and aesthetics. In fact, Denmark’s reputation as a leader in the realms of design is immediately apparent to the newly arrived visitor. 

Looking at Copenhagen is free, but everything else is pretty pricey. But my son and  I  bit the bullet and made a rather costly pilgrimage to the famous Tivoli Gardens, just around the corner from the Square.   Established in 1843 and added to over the years, the famed pleasure garden is an elegant and tasteful version of the theme parks which have proliferated in much of the west.

We entered a world of trees, flowers and illuminated water features through a T stone archway and discovered hoards of hidden treasures to delight the heart of anyone who likes to play and have fun.  Among the varied restaurants and buzzing band stands is a trail of fair ground rides that range from an old-fashioned and tame merry-go-round to  knuckle biting ones that propelled us way above the city at high speeds or upside down. Fear be damned, we notched up all 26 rides.  Some, like the dodgems (robust cars designed for jarring collision and the rather sedate, electrically powered boats drew us back for second turns.

There were plenty of seemingly happy kids in the Tivoli Gardens,  but even more  remarkable was the considerable number of smiling adults, some of whom did not even have children with them but they were laughing and shrieking like kids as they jumped on and off rides.  It was only day one and we felt we were perhaps already in possession of two of the golden rules of happiness: cycle everywhere and maintain a life-long capacity to play. 

On day two we made our way to the National Museum,  where a section dedicated to kids affords them the opportunity to learn by taking an imaginative trip into the past and where fun and interactivity take precedence over wordy exposition and explanations.  

Ruairidh dressed up in Viking clothing and clambered into a long ship.  Then we fenced with wooden swords and cooked up a pretend feast in a medieval kitchen.  Finally, without words, he and another young visitor operated a pulley system that elevated plastic bricks onto a wooden platform; then they clambered up the platform’s scaffolding and used the bricks to extend the height of a wall.

Later, at the Experimentarium  Science Museum,   mobile phones and cameras were nowhere to be seen.  Everybody was too busy immersing themselves in hands-on science to bother with distracting personal gadgets that documented everything they were doing.

I watched a woman lie down on a wooden plinth with holes in it.  When she was settled, she shifted a lever and loads of nails popped up so she was actually lying on their sharp points. And when she was done, her small, blond daughter took her turn. And there was no posing on Facebook or Twitter about the experience.  

The little scene I witnessed seemed to typify Danish parenting: adults and children do things together whenever possible and actually enjoy each others' company.  Childcare is high quality and highly subsidised, so most men and women work full time, knowing their kids are in good hands.   But family time is highly valued, so the working day is relatively short and free time is a time for togetherness. 

The litmus test of the success of any trip is whether you would like to return.  Ruairidh says he certainly would.  In the meantime, we have brought home a wonderful Danish souvenir: a commitment to family fun. My son’s therapeutic advice was correct and I shall count on him to offer insight into matters of well-being for a long time to come.


IF YOU GO:  Double rooms at the Square cost from around £98 per night including breakfast .www.

For more information, GO TO Visit Denmark:


Jenny McBain lives in the Highlands of Scotland from where she files news, arts and travel stories to UK magazines and newspapers. She is a former television and radio presenter.

photo by Lighttruth via common license. 



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