A great place for children at the top of the world

One of the best places I have ever visited is that offshoot of Western Civilization in the far north bordered only by the sea: Iceland. Yes, daylight is short in winter and long in summer, and the place can get really cold. But then there’s the quality of life.

Consider: William Russell is a UK-based insurance company that caters to expats, claiming to “deliver straightforward and affordable plans that cover their health, well-being and financial security, wherever they are.” To enhance their profile in the sizeable expat market, the company recently released a study entitled Pregnancy Places: The World’s Best Cities for Expectant Parents.

The company ranked cities around the world on the following categories (followed by the top ranked):

  • Length of Paid Maternity/Paternity Leave (Helsinki)
  • Total paid leave for parents of 0-2-year-olds (Helsinki)
  • Access to early childhood education and care services (Reykjavik)
  • Preschool/kindergarten costs (Berlin)
  • Fertility rates (Antalya, Turkey)
  • Safety index (Kyoto)
  • Pollution index (Helsinki)
  • Healthcare index (Nice)

The top ten cities overall were either Scandinavian or east Asian. The study is a fascinating project, relying on data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) as well as statistical information from the Serbian-based website numbeo.com.

What city was rated #1 all around?

Reykjavik, Iceland.

Once again little Iceland punches above its weight. The study considered the length of parental leave, total paid parental leave for parents of children up to two years of age, the percentage of children participating in early childhood education and care (including preschool and kindergarten), personal safety, pollution, and quality of (and access to) healthcare. Reykjavik was ranked just about at the top on all counts.

It is widely acknowledged that Icelanders--343,000 of them by the latest Census--have built themselves a nice little society near the top of the world. They are almost all descended from Vikings, and there is an abundant smattering of redheads, something yours truly can relate to.

Yes, the country is expensive. When I was there prices were comparable to upscale London and New York. But the quality of life outweighs the costs – not even close.

How so?

First off, trust was quite noticeable. People eagerly picked up hitchhikers. Women left their babies in prams outside shops. Ladies walked alone in downtown Reykjavik after dark and did not scurry away when you asked directions. This sense of personal safety is something Americans once took for granted but lost long ago. Anyone with a lick of sense in the US knows not to walk alone at night in an American inner city. You Uber in and Uber out if you go at all. Could America’s crime problem be due to a lack of folks like Icelanders?

In Reykjavik I saw people help each other out, like the time a car slid on a patch of black ice and ended up on its side. Other motorists stopped, got out and righted the car. A cashier chased me down the street to give me correct change. I saw bar patrons patiently intervene with an unruly sort and quiet him down. On numerous occasions people went out of their way to render assistance. These are anecdotes only, and people helping strangers happens everywhere. But they happened a lot – strikingly so – on my visit to Reykjavik.

While it has been a while, when I was there the sense of community was almost palpable.

Crime is low. Yes, Iceland is a small country, but the people are exceedingly well-behaved. It is called civility. Confucius would call it civic virtue. Here’s the US State Department’s Overseas Security Advisory Council’s (OSAC) Iceland 2020 Crime and Safety Report:

The U.S. Department of State has assessed Reykjavik as being a LOW-threat location… crime continues to be lower than in most developed countries and countries of similar size and demographics. The low level of general crime and very low level of violent crime is due to the high-standard of living, lack of tension between social and economic classes, small population, strong social attitudes against criminality, high level of trust in law enforcement, and a well-trained, highly-educated police force.

…Reykjavik also has higher than average (for Iceland) reports of domestic violence, sexual assaults, automobile theft, vandalism, property damage, and other street crimes, which is typical for any large urban area. These numbers are still very low when compared to the United States or Europe [emphasis added].  Police attribute most of these crimes to juvenile delinquents, drug users, immigrants, and tourists. According to the police, the rise in pickpocketing is a direct result of an influx of immigrants/asylum seekers coupled with the increasing presence of tourists... 

Iceland has had a homicide rate of less than one per year for the last several decades…

Wow! If they could only get a handle on those wayward “juvenile delinquents, drug users, immigrants and tourists!”

Iceland has had 100 percent literacy for generations. Icelanders read a lot, love to drink, and have one of the world’s highest average life expectancies (82.6) and the lowest infant mortality at around 1.11/thousand or .001 percent.

Not only that: The 2021 World Happiness Report published by the UN-supported Sustainable Development Solutions Network, ranks Iceland the fourth happiest country in the world (behind Finland, Denmark and Switzerland). The study’s happiness rankings are based on gross domestic product per capita, social support (public and private), healthy life expectancy, personal freedom, generosity of the population, and perception of corruption.

What could be better for parenting and children?

Yet despite this good news, modernity rules (Iceland is, after all, Scandinavian). The Icelandic fertility rate is somewhere between 1.7 and 1.85. The Lancet’s landmark 2017 study on fertility mortality, migration, and population projects that Iceland’s population will peak at about 400,000 in 2063 and decline to approximately 160,000 by 2100.

You don’t need to be an expat to see that Iceland, though isolated geographically from the rest of us, would be a fine place to come into this world and grow up.

Something to ponder in our increasingly unstable world.

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