The evidence is mountainous: life for Hongkongers, young and old, sucks. The city’s children, and their parents, are some of the most stressed out when it comes to first world countries, ranking in the top five. There’s been a variety of studies on the city’s youth which have produced a number of headline-grabbing statistics, but two stick out: that half of Hong Kong’s adolescents showed signs of depression and 40 per cent of students would rate their stress levels as high – at least a seven out of 10. So, where are kids happy? The last large scale study done on the children’s well-being in developed nations was by Unicef in 2013. The countries producing the happiest kids all scored quite high on a very few specific dimensions. Aside from the obvious markers like child mortality rates, education, poverty and deprivation (access to food), one part of the report stood out upon further review. When it came to pinning down well-being, one of the strongest indicators was exercise and play, as the report noted: “regular exercise, for example, is linked not only to physical and mental health but to the prevention and/or treatment of such specific problems as asthma, obesity, anxiety and depression”. Now, I know what you’re thinking Hong Kong parents. Your kid already plays a sport, or two, which they win tonnes of trophies in, and are forced to exercise and or train on a regular basis. But the markers in Unicef’s report aren’t about how well they perform, instead structure and environment play a much larger role in adolescent development. The Dutch, who ranked atop Unicef’s report, do unique things like allow unscheduled play dates for their children, play with their kids regularly on evenings and weekends ( something Hong Kong parents rarely do ), have incredibly low levels of homework and feel little pressure to excel in school. They also spend a lot of time outdoors in nature. Dutch parents are some of the happiest in the world. Compared to Hong Kong, which has one of the highest stress levels for adults in the developed world, the Netherlands sounds like an entirely different planet. Basically, being a Dutch kid sounds like a blast: you start school late in life, don’t have a lot of external pressures, and have substantial time to play, explore and enjoy existence. Dutch society, and its economy, does not suffer because of this, in fact Holland has the most competitive economy in Europe and the fourth best in the world according to the 2018 IMD World Competitiveness Ranking. There’s also a really interesting report published in the The American Academy of Paediatrics , which looked at a number of studies when it came to the important of play in childhood development and underlying happiness, and its direct link to strong child-parent bonds. Stress facing Hong Kong teachers and students is a collective problem we cannot ignore Here’s an interesting quote about play and sports which may sound alien to local fathers and mothers: “Undirected play allows children to learn how to work in groups, to share, to negotiate, to resolve conflicts, and to learn self-advocacy skills. When play is allowed to be child-driven, children practise decision-making skills, move at their own pace, discover their own areas of interest, and ultimately engage fully in the passions they wish to pursue. Ideally, much of play involves adults, but when play is controlled by adults, children acquiesce to adult rules and concerns and lose some of the benefits play offers them, particularly in developing creativity, leadership, and group skills.” When you look at the top five countries in Unicef’s report (which also includes Norway, Iceland, Finland and Sweden), the Scandinavian way of life, which is heavy on happiness and light on stress, stands out. Sports for children in these nations are voluntary outside of physical education classes in school, exercise is not results driven and the emphasis is on building things like teamwork, understanding and above all else, having fun. Kids are also not pressured to continue in sports they do not like, excel at or enjoy – rather they self-direct into sports they like through trial and error. One only needs to look at some of the world’s top sporting nations when it comes to medals and podium finishes to realise these Scandinavian kids turn out to be excellent professional athletes and productive members of society. It’s also no surprise the top countries in Unicef’s report on children are all in the top 10 when it comes to the overall World Happiness Index. The idea is that tough love, strict styles of coaching and winning at all costs – coupled with heavily structured exercise, lots of rules and homework, does not help children and it stresses them out. It also turns them into stressed-out adults further down the road. Dear Hong Kong parents: let your kids play freely, pick a sport they like and enjoy, or let them quit if they don’t. They may not thank you now, but they will pass off a better way of life to their children.