The supportive society – trust in Denmark as an example to other nations

When it comes to happiness, trust and overall well-being, Denmark has topped the list more than once in the past. Danish mothers and fathers show their trust in other people by leaving their baby outside by themselves. What makes this society different to others?

 by Maxis Bryant and Tabea Guenzler

The front terrace of Bruse brewery in Nørrebro left almost no open space between dozens of baby carriages. Children left in the carriages were taking an afternoon nap, while parents enjoyed themselves at a maternity leave meeting, drinking beer. Occasionally, a parent would come out to check on the child.

Ida Ottesen is one of them. Six months ago, she became the mother of Theodore and found out about the maternity leave meeting on the news that morning. “It is not about dancing or being with the baby all the time”, said Ottensen who is taking seven months of parental leave, while her husband takes three out of one year in total.

Safety and less fear leading to a ‘High-Trust Society’

Besides having a good welfare system, Denmark is known as one of the world’s safest countries. According to the Global Peace Index (GPI), published by the Institute for Economics & Peace (IEP), Denmark ranks 5 out of 163 countries in stability and safety. Low crime rates make this country one of the safest to live in. Homicide rates for example are one of the lowest with just 0.8 out of every 100,000 people, according to the GPI.  The Danish people are said to take pride in their country and will let tourists or newcomers know that the streets of Denmark, both day and night, are some of the safest. Denmark has what is known as a ‘High-Trust Society’, which means it is not uncommon to see baby carriages parked outside restaurants or cafés with a sleeping child inside. This behavior is rarely seen in Germany and most unlikely in the United States. Americans often stay more cautious and wearier of other people compared to Denmark or Germany. In fact, parents or guardians in the U.S. who leave their children unattended in public areas can face an arrest or prison and may lose custody of their children.

A matter of trust and not skepticism

In May 1997, a story made headlines worldwide, when a woman from Denmark, Anette Sørensen Habel, was arrested during a visit to New York City after leaving her 14-month-old daughter, Liv, outside a restaurant in a baby carriage. The following media attention, the separation from her child and legal dispute in the aftermath became a drastic experience for then 30-year-old Sørensen Habel.

Today, Sørensen Habel lives in Hamburg, Germany, and is the current author of the book ‘Ormen i æblet – En barnevogn i New York’ (The worm in the Apple – The Pramcase of New York) in which she wrote down her story. More than twenty years have passed since that day and Sørensen Habel has investigated the subject of trust a lot because of her book.

“You cannot live in fear,” said Sørensen Habel. “If you live in fear, what kind of life do you have? It’s very important to live with trust.” Sørensen Habel describes the U.S. as being a country with a fear-culture. Five years she lived in the U.S. before she moved back to Denmark. Unlike in her home country, Sørensen Habel experienced that parents in the U.S. are more scared about their children: “I would say children aren’t even allowed to go alone to the playground or bicycle to school”. Therefore, Sørensen Habel plans to publish her book in English in the United States but has trouble finding an agency. “What I have been through is a very good example and profound subject for this kind of thinking”, said Sørensen Habel and hopes that by sharing her story it will help encourage parents to trust in society and be more open in raising independent children. She believes it is a matter of ‘to just be in the world’, to trust and not be skeptical. “You have to let your children go and if you don’t do that, they won’t be independent,” said Sørensen Habel. “It will be more difficult for them to find out what they want in life.”

Happiness and socializing are key factors to build trust

One good way of telling the difference between the levels of trust in each society can be by watching how Americans and Danish parents raise their children. Danes take the lead when it comes to building a happy and healthy generation. Meik Wiking, author of ‘The little book of Lykke’ describes it as “raising happiness” and the teaching of empathy and social skills in schools. German and Danish parents act similar when it comes to trust in letting their kids go to school independently. Children can be seen using public transportation or ride their bike by themselves. However: How long did it take for these types of traditions to develop and how did they become what they are today?

Gert Tinggaard, a Political Scientist from Aarhus University, studies Danish culture and how it has developed over time. Tinggaard explained that Denmark’s ‘High-Trust Society’ goes all the way back to the 1850’s. Tinggaard described that traders during 19th century would often shun traders who were con-artists or tried to give unfair deals. This shunning created generated social pressure in Danish society and would help bring up trust between the people. Tinggaard also points out how Denmark is a very social culture and people are engaging with their communities. The tradition of clubs, associations and volunteer groups creates a sense of trust in society. “Danes are always meeting face-to-face,” said Tinggaard. “In almost every village you can find a meeting house where people will come to talk and exchange dialogue.”

Ida Ottensen may leave her child outside while talking to other mothers, but she will never leave her son out of sight. What is normal to her as a mother in Denmark shows a profound core element within the Danish society – trust.

This story is written for an audience from Germany and the United States