It’s a word in Dutch. Gezelligheid. We don’t have an equivalent in English. The closest translation I found is “cozy togetherness.”
I found it in a book called Not Under My Roof by Amy T. Schalet. The author is a sociologist who studies Dutch and American attitudes about teen sexuality. She interviewed 130 Dutch and American people, both parents and teens, between 1990 and 2000.
As my own teens progress through these years, I know I want to do things differently. I remember anger, sneaking, lying, and worst of all, the terrible fracturing as I pulled away from my parents’ rules and became a sexual being. Compared to my home where my parents visibly gritted their teeth when my boyfriend walked in, his parents welcomed, appreciated, and loved us. Guess where we went?
I want my own kids’ experiences to be different. I don’t know how.
Gezelligheid is something the Dutch treasure. Pleasant togetherness. Sociability. They work and plan for it, with family dinners, board games, conversations, and time. When their teens begin to stretch beyond the family boundaries and spend time with their friend in cafes and discos, parents and the teens still work to preserve the family’s sense of gezelligheid.
And I look at my life. Where every family I know with kids is running around like the proverbial headless chickens, frantically carting kids to Tae Kwon Do, ballet, piano, soccer, Suzuki violin, and tutoring. Scouts on Tuesday, orchestra on Thursday, and barely time for dinner. Now that I have one kid in high school, I hear parents constantly worry about the college application process, where kids are looking for one more activity, one more accomplishment to impress some nameless administrator. Gezelligheid? Not only do we not have a word for it, it’s clearly not a priority. It happens sometimes, usually by accident. Mostly on vacation, when we can’t run around because we’re not home.
The Dutch teens, by the way, have sex. Just like American teens. The difference is gezelligheid and trust. In an attempt to preserve family togetherness, to acknowledge that sex is part of life and part of growing up, Dutch parents of older teens, usually sixteen and up, permit sex. At home. With a committed romantic partner. They talk about sex openly and regularly, they help their teens get birth control, and if the teens feel ready and the other parents agree, they permit a sleepover. A boy-girl sleepover, at home, where they all have Sunday morning breakfast together after, with Mom and Dad and little brothers. The family’s gezelligheid is preserved. They avoid conflict. Dutch parents trust their teens, within boundaries, to begin developing self-control.
Count this former Catholic girl’s mind as blown. Just blown. And yet, the Dutch just may be on to something. Overall, Dutch teens have fewer partners than their American counterparts. They begin having sex later. They have vastly fewer STDs, abortions, and unplanned pregnancies. I think most telling of all, the Dutch teens describe their first sexual experience as fun, planned, and fulfilling. Far more American teens described feeling coerced, either by a partner who was pressuring them or by a situation that was too good to pass up. Dutch parents don’t permit casual sex at home, but sex in the context of love and a committed relationship. And they acknowledge that teens can love, it’s not just hormones.
American parents almost all say no to teen sex, under any circumstances. The effect, however, is to drive it underground and out of sight. It still happens, but it is full of fear, danger, guilt, deceit, and the potential for disease and unplanned pregnancy.
By contrast, the Dutch parents in the book practice “control through connection.”
With the belief widespread that it is not possible to keep young people from engaging in sex and drinking if they decide they want to, few teenagers find such exploratory activities outright forbidden. At the same time, they are expected to continue participation in family rituals that keep them connected to their parents, even as they begin to experiment with sex, alcohol, and venturing into the world of nightlife. The “domestication” of their experimentations creates bridges between the world of adults and the world of peers that their American counterparts lack, and it encourages in the Dutch teenagers a psychology of incorporation. Those bridges are two-way streets: young people are able to integrate their experiences outside the home more easily with their roles as family members, but they are also subject to a deeper form of social control. This “soft” power is particularly effective when young people stay genuinely connected to their families not just out of duty but out of desire.
I went to this book looking for advice about how to parent teens and guide them through their teenage years. And in return, I found a profound idea.
Yes, we need to talk regularly about condoms, safety, and biology. I need to get over myself and make this the part of life that it is. But we also need to talk about love and trust, about feeling ready. We have a dual message we give teens in America. “Don’t have sex. Just don’t.” We couple this with safety. “If you’re going to have sex (after we told you not to), be safe, don’t get diseases or get pregnant.” Birth control and sex education is akin to fire extinguisher training. Be ready. Know how to use it. But hope you don’t have to. Like Smoky Bear, "Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires."
By contrast, the Dutch talk about emotional readiness, not just biological. They ask their teens if they feel ready for sex, with this person, and let the teen guide the answers. Sometimes the answer is yes, sometimes no. The Dutch talk about love, trust, and commitment, not forever, but for now. And they talk about integration, about bringing their teen’s partner home to join in the family’s treasured sense of gezelligheid.
Rooted in my hope to keep my teens safe and healthy, sexually, psychologically, and physically, I found myself thinking of soup. Games of UNO. Movies on the couch. Popcorn. Time, real time together, not just by accident, not just on vacation, but all the time, as often as possible. I found myself thinking of favorite dinners, and of time for dinner at all. I thought of Saturday morning pancakes, walking the dog, and getting ingredients for my son’s favorite cookies. I thought of family ski trips and hot chocolate after. And I said no to that one extra activity of my daughter’s that is driving us all over the edge.
My kids are still too young for sex, even by Dutch standards. But it’s coming. When it does come, I’ll have dinner ready, in a home where we have time to talk to each other. Where my son’s or daughter’s partner can be a welcomed temporary family member. In a home where we have gezelligheid.