Learning from the Danes
Zoom-Out is essentially a form of cognitive reframing with an emphasis on the bigger picture as a gateway to new and more helpful perspectives.
The Danes have been regularly classed as the happiest people on Earth over many years. It appears that the skill of reframing contributes to this wellbeing. In the brilliant book, “The Danish Way of Parenting: What the Happiest People in the World Know About Raising Confident, Capable Kids“, there is an entire chapter dedicated to reframing and seeing the bigger picture and alternative perspectives is a central theme.
In this section, I will present some of the highlights from the Reframing chapter. However, I do highly recommend the book as a whole!
The authors Jessica Joelle Alexander & Iben Dissing Sandahl creatively structure the core chapters around the letters of the word PARENT as follows:
Chapter 2: P Is for Play
Chapter 3: A Is for Authenticity
Chapter 4: R Is for Reframing
Chapter 5: E Is for Empathy
Chapter 6: N Is for No Ultimatums
Chapter 7: T Is for Togetherness and Hygge
R expanded states:
“Reframing – Why reframing can change you and your children’s lives for the better.”
Notice that it’s about changing the parent’s life for the better as well as the child’s. This works in two ways:
(1) If your child is happier and more resilient then that will positively impact your life of course
(2) The practice of helping your child reframe and Zoom-Out will involve you practicing what you preach and leading by example, coaching your child to do the same. So there is a double win here!
The whole of the Zoom-Out content of course, is aimed at helping you, as an adult, to cultivate your Zoom-Out and reframing skills. Here we examine this within the context of being a parent and helping your child to Zoom-Out when Zoomed-In on something unhelpful.
The book points out the benefits of reframing and the positive impact on wellbeing and resilience:
Numerous organizations in the U.S. are training their workers in the skill of reinterpreting information, or reframing, because it is seen as a key trait in resilience.
The ability to reframe negative situations is a key element to being resilient.
Numerous studies show that when we deliberately reinterpret an event to feel better about it, it decreases activity in areas of the brain involved in the processing of negative emotions and increases activity in areas of the brain involved in cognitive control and adaptive integration.– The Danish Way of Parenting
As we have covered many times in Zoom-Out, language and thought are intimately linked – we literally think in terms of language and the words we use literally shape our subjective reality. The chapter opens with an example of how an America wife notices the way her Danish husband utilises language with their children – and indeed this is what inspired her to write the book in the first place.
The “Danish way” of using language was hugely important. Because it wasn’t just about the language; it was about using the language to create a perception shift.
The language we use is extremely powerful. It is the frame through which we perceive and describe ourselves and our picture of the world. Allan Holmgren, a well-known Danish psychologist, believes that our reality is created in the language we use. All change involves a change in language. A problem is only a problem if it is referred to as a problem.– The Danish Way of Parenting
Many of our perspectives (beliefs, perceptions) are rooted in our childhood, picked up from our parents and other people in our lives. Many of these perspectives go unchallenged and accepted as “truth”.
You see, the way we view life and filter our day-to-day experiences affects the way we feel in general. Many of us are unaware that how we see things is an unconscious choice. We feel that our perception of life is the truth. It’s our truth. We don’t think of our perception as a learned way of seeing things (often picked up from our parents and our culture).
We see it as just the way things are. This set way of “the way things are” is called a “frame,” and this frame through which we see the world is our perception. And what we perceive as the truth feels like the truth.– The Danish Way of Parenting
As well as helping us to reflect on our own perspectives, this clearly points out the burden of responsibility we have as parents not to inflict narrow and limiting beliefs onto our children, about themselves, others and the world.
The authors use the metaphor of a picture hanging in an art gallery to illuminate the act of reframing but also the role of the parent as a reframing guide – or as we would call it, a Zoom-Out Coach:
Imagine you’re standing in an art gallery. The picture is hanging on the wall and there is a guide who is pointing out its subtle details to you. You begin to notice things you didn’t see before. These new details you see were clearly there before, but you missed them because you were too focused on what you thought was the most obvious theme. It was a negative picture, you concluded. The man was mean, the woman was helpless, and the mood was somber.
You are about to move on, but now you realize, with the help of the guide, that there is an entirely different story line to focus on in the picture. You now see that there are jovial people bearing gifts arriving in the window behind the couple. The man is being bitten by a dog, which is why he looks mean, and the woman is being helpful, not helpless. There is a child laughing in the background you hadn’t noticed, and the light streaming through the window is extraordinary.
In the very same picture, there are many other things to focus on that you hadn’t even seen. It feels exhilarating to experience this mental shift and discovery. Your memory of that picture will now be completely different, and the way you share your observations about it with others will be too.
With practice, finding these alternative story lines becomes a skill, not a struggle. And the guide pointing out these alternate story lines in the future will be you.– The Danish Way of Parenting
This is a great description of being a Zoom-Out Coach (the guide), helping someone to see the bigger picture, taking in details that were missed entirely but discoverable, resulting in a shift in perspective – to a more helpful and accurate one. As parents we can be a Zoom-Out Coach and reframing guide for our children.
With Zoom-Out we are careful to use the phrase “helpful perspective” and not default to a “positive perspective”. Helpful can mean positive but ultimately we are concerned with whether a perspective helps you and those around you. Being 100% positive all the time is not always helpful. In this book it stresses the idea of Realistic Optimism:
Danes don’t pretend that negativity doesn’t exist. They just point out in a rather matter-of-fact way that another side also exists that you may never have even considered thinking about. They choose to focus on the good in people instead of on the bad.
They change their expectations to focus on the bigger picture rather than getting trapped by one aspect of an argument, and they generally tend to be more tempered in their assumptions. Danes are what psychologists call “realistic optimists.”– The Danish Way of Parenting
In Zoom-Out we often talk about how our distorted view of reality can get us into trouble and be a major source of suffering. We don’t want to be “Blindly Optimistic”, we are aiming for Realistic Optimism.
Overly positive people, on the other hand, tend to ignore negative information, which can make them oblivious to important negative realities.
Underestimating negative situations has the potential to deliver a much bigger blow when you’re hit with one.
Being in touch with reality but focusing on the more positive angles is much more in line with being a realistic optimist.– The Danish Way of Parenting
A key point being:
Realistic optimists merely filter out unnecessary negative information.– The Danish Way of Parenting
In other words, do not Zoom-In on the unhelpful aspects of a situation or person or of one’s self. But importantly, they are still aligned with objective reality (to the extent that any human ever can in our subjective realities).
They learn to tune out negative words and occurrences and develop a habit of interpreting ambiguous situations in a more positive manner. They don’t see things as only bad or good or black or white but instead realize that there are many shades in between. Focusing on the less negative aspects of situations and finding a middle ground reduces anxiety and increases well-being.– The Danish Way of Parenting
Returning to the theme of language, the chapter has a section dedicated to how limiting language can be if we are not careful.
Not only does reframing change our brain chemistry, but it helps how we interpret pain, fear, anxiety, and the like. And this reframing is directly related to the language we use—both out loud and in our head.– The Danish Way of Parenting
We need to pay close attention to the words we say out loud but also to the words that we use in our internal dialogue. As a parent we need to pay close attention to:
1. Our general language – The words and language we use in front of our children about ourselves, others and the word – we influence the mental models of our children
2. Our child-oriented language – The words and language we use about our children – we influence the mental models children have of themselves
3. Our child’s language – The words and language our children use… about themselves, others and the world
Let’s get down to brass tacks – how can we apply all of this in practice? Luckily, the book helpfully provides seven practical tips as follows.
TIP #1: Pay attention to your negativity
Being a good parent begins with self-awareness and working on ourselves. Being a good role model and leading by example.
Everything we see and say negatively about ourselves, our family, and our anxieties and fears passes directly on to our kids, so give the gift of reframing to yourself and your children and help them become better at coping with life’s ups and downs.– The Danish Way of Parenting
I love the idea of giving your child the gift of reframing and Zoom-Out. And a gift that keeps on giving when they pass this on to the people around them and possibly their own children and their children’s children.
So we begin by Zooming-Out on ourselves. To step back and notice our own negative or unhelpful thoughts & perspectives. We can do this in the moment, literally catch ourselves in the act. Or we can do this through retrospective reflection, at the end of the day or week – journaling is a powerful Zoom-Out tool.
TIP #2: Practice reframing
In order to help our children reframe and Zoom-Out, we need to practice and develop these skills ourselves. We need to lead by example.
Once you have spotted an unhelpful thought or perspective. Look for an alternative perspective – replace it with a more helpful one, keeping in mind Realistic Optimism and not Blind Optimism. Again writing this down, say in a journal, can be a powerful way to do this and make it stick so that when similar thoughts arise you are better placed to catch and replace them in the moment.
When you catch yourself Zoomed-In with a limiting or otherwise unhelpful perspective, try changing the phrasing. The book provides some helpful examples:
For example, with this...
“I never have time to exercise”
>> “I do manage to exercise at least once a week”
“I am so fat”
>> “I am trying to eat salads for lunch, which feels good”
“I am a terrible writer”
>> “I am a pretty decent writer once I get in the zone”
Zoom-Out in time, space and other dimensions to find a more helpful truth to Zoom-In on. This is why Zoom-Out exists, to help you do this in a myriad of practical ways.
The Danes are naturally good at reframing because they have inherited the skill from their parents and as such they may pass this on to their own children. So don’t just think of passing on Zoom-Out skills to your children but potentially down the generations to come.
TIP #3: Use less limiting language
This is a good point to remind ourselves of the Zoom-Out premise and motto:
The Zoom-Out premise is:
At times we can hold a narrow or limited perspective that is unhelpful to ourselves and others– The Zoom-Out premise
The Zoom-Out motto is:
“Zoom-Out to find the most helpful perspective”– The Zoom-Out motto
From a Zoom-Out context, limiting language reveals a narrow and limiting perspective. As a parent we want to spot when our child is using limiting language and help them to Zoom-Out and find a less limiting perspective.
Reframing with children is about the adult helping the child to shift focus from what she thinks she can’t do to what she can do. The adult helps the child see situations from different angles and gets her to focus on the less negative outcomes or conclusions. With practice, this can become a default setting—for both parent and child.– The Danish Way of Parenting
A particular type of language to be vigilant for with your child and indeed yourself, is binary, all-or-nothing, “black-and-white”, type statements.
When you or your children use limiting language such as “I hate this,” “I can’t do it,” “I am not good at that,” and so on, you create a negative story line.
“She isn’t very good at sports”; “He is so messy”; “She is too sensitive.” These are all very defining. The more of these statements children hear, the more negative conclusions about themselves they make.– The Danish Way of Parenting
To reduce the problem, it helps to find and create a different narrative for your children. Leading them to a new, broader, or more ambiguous picture about themselves and the world around them helps them to reframe. And this skill will transfer to how they learn to see and interpret life and others as well.– The Danish Way of Parenting
She [Iben – one of the authors] helps people look at the beliefs they have about themselves and the beliefs they put on their kids without realizing it. Statements such as “He is antisocial,” “She isn’t very academic,” “He is terrible at math,” and “She is so selfish” all become behavior your children try to make sense of and identify with.
Children can hear parents say these things much more often than you realize.
Soon, they believe that it must be how they are. When new behavior doesn’t fit into this label, they don’t even try to make sense of it because they have already identified themselves as being uncoordinated, shy, or terrible at math.– The Danish Way of Parenting
So as a parent aim to do the following with respect to limiting language / narrow perspectives:
 Avoid binary thinking – the all-or-nothing, “black-and-white”, type statements. Replace with shades of grey and acknowledge that there are many sides to a story and that things are not fixed and change over time and in different contexts.
 Avoid labels – calling someone “lazy” or “mean” etc narrows and limits the perspective on that person. This is similar to all-or-nothing language. Your child may now think of themselves or others in terms of the label which is a generalisation, exaggeration, distortion or in fact may be largely or totally false.
 Use less severe language – don’t exaggerate if not helpful and keep an eye out for catastrophising and other cognitive distortions.
 Avoid jumping to judgments – it’s very easy ourselves to Zoom-In on a particular detail or aspect of our children and make a rash judgement. Step back in such moments and reach a balanced perspective taking in the bigger picture and other aspects and interpretations. The book points out that doing so will also result in fewer power struggles with your child.
TIP #4: Try externalization language: Separate the actions from the person
Part of Zooming-Out and seeing the bigger picture is seeing the wider context of any given situation. Looking beyond symptoms to the root cause and looking beyond some behaviour to the impact of the environment and external conditions.
Kurt Lewin, the father of Social Psychology, is famous among many things for this behaviour equation which states that a person’s behaviour is a product of themselves and the environment within which they find themselves. Within the person, their perspective on the situation also plays a key part (and we extended this equation to the Zoom-Out Equation of Behaviour).
A person’s behaviour is not fixed over time either. Some conditions that affect a person’s behaviour and thinking are temporary and will pass.
So be careful not to label your child based on single or small set of instances. Keep in mind things can and do change and that the child’s environments play a huge part. Also avoid extreme and binary perspectives as discussed above.
Instead of saying “She is lazy” or “He is aggressive,” try seeing these issues as external rather than innate. “She is affected by laziness” and “He is struck by moments of aggressivity” are very different from labeling them as “how they are.”– The Danish Way of Parenting
TIP #5: Rewrite your child’s narrative to be more loving
Spot and avoid when you or your child may be Zoomed-In on a perceived weakness of your child and making a generalised judgement based on this. Also, who are you or your child comparing your child with? Some idealised version of a child or someone else’s child? Aim to shift the focus to the whole of your child, their strengths and embracing their uniqueness.
Try focusing on the positive side of your children’s behaviour so they feel appreciated for their uniqueness rather than labelled negatively.– The Danish Way of Parenting
Rewrite the negative identity conclusions for yourself and your children, and separate the behaviour from the child. This gives both parents and kids the ability to grow and rewrite more loving narratives about themselves.– The Danish Way of Parenting
Again, avoid unhelpful and limiting labels and replace with a more loving narrative:
For example, with this...
“She has ADHD”
>> “She is energetic and is a fantastic drummer”
“She is so stubborn”
>> “She is a patient hard worker who doesn’t give up”
TIP #6: Use supporting language
This calls to the role of a parent as a coach – not to tell a child how to think, feel and act but to help the child to take ownership of their own thoughts feelings and actions. For them to be empowered and skilled in leading themselves through life’s ups and downs. Part of this is being a Zoom-Out Coach or a “reframing guide” as referred to in the book.
Ask questions to help them identify their emotions behind the actions. Help them identify their intentions and the intentions of others so they can understand how to lead themselves out of tough situations.– The Danish Way of Parenting
TIP #7: Use humour
Humour is an incredible Zoom-Out tool and comedians leverage finding a new perspective in their humour and indeed is a key part of the anatomy of a joke, the punchline! Not only is humour a way of seeing things from a fresh and brighter perspective, laughing induces positive emotion where there may have been negative emotion. This has the bonus of shifting the power from the emotional “fight or flight” part of the brain to the cognitive self regulating part of the brain – thus putting your child in a better state to reframe or Zoom-Out for themselves.
The trick with humour is not to ignore the negative situation or to negate your child’s feelings or experience. Again, we want realistic optimism not blind optimism.
The book provides a lovely example:
If you find yourself on the side of a soccer field and your child played badly and says so—“I played terribly”—a typical way of responding might be, “No, you didn’t! You played great! The field was slippery! You’ll win next time! You win some, you lose some!”
A Danish way of reframing with humor might be something like the following: “I played terribly.” “Did you break your leg?” “No, but I am a terrible player.” “But you didn’t break your leg, did you? Are you sure?” (go down to check the leg) “Well, at least you didn’t break your leg!” “Ha ha, I am terrible at soccer. I should quit. I hate it.” “You hate it? Yes, you did play pretty badly today, but remember last week when you scored two goals?” “Oh yeah, but …” “Remember how you felt when you scored those goals?” “Pretty good.”– The Danish Way of Parenting
FURTHER READING & WATCHING
In this video interview, Jessica Joelle Alexander (author) speaks about the book – here we jump straight to the part on reframing:
The book is highly recommended: