For people looking to relocate, rankings of the world’s most liveable countries can be helpful. But with kids in tow, there are more factors to weigh than, say, average income or economic stability. You might want to know about local children’s health or happiness, the quality of education, family leave policies – even which countries have the greenest space or playgrounds.
It’s these sorts of factors that Unicef focuses on in its “report cards” on child wellbeing. It’s important to note that their rankings look only at the world’s wealthiest countries – and not all of the data might be of equal interest to expat families. But their findings help paint an insightful picture of what it’s really like to raise kids in countries around the world.
We’ve drawn on some of this research to try to answer every emigrating family’s top question: where are the best places to raise children – or, for that matter, to be a child?
Japan is one of the safest countries for families, and children regularly walk to school on their own (Credit: Monzenmachi/Getty Images)
In Unicef’s 2020 analysis of children’s wellbeing, Japan ranks number one for physical health, which looks at child mortality and obesity. And in Unicef’s most recent report card in 2022, which specifically looked at the environments children grow up in, it ranks second for the “world around the child” – a category that includes aspects like urban green space and traffic safety. Japan also has the lowest rate of child obesity, low child mortality and extremely low levels of air or water pollution affecting children.
It’s also one of the safest countries for families, and not just in terms of road accidents. Japan’s overall murder rate is the lowest of any of the countries Unicef looked at: at 0.2 per 100,000, it is a fraction of that in the US (5.3), Canada (1.8) or even Australia (0.8).
Even in the middle of Tokyo, kids just walk around and go to school on their own. It’s completely normal because it’s really safe
The safety factor doesn’t just mean families can relax a little bit. It also has a huge effect on the freedom children are able to enjoy, according to Mami McCagg, a Tokyo native who now lives in London and hosts the podcast Bilingual News. “Kids go to school on their own from the age of six or so. They take the bus or the train if it’s not just walking distance,” she said. “Even in the middle of Tokyo, kids just walk around and go to school on their own. It’s completely normal because it’s really safe. No one is really worried about their kids because we don’t have to be.”
Beyond top marks for health and safety, Japan also has one of the world’s top educational systems, coming in 12th among 76 countries and regions, according to OECD assessments that Unicef drew on for its data. And it provides generous entitlements for paid parental leave, with each working parent offered around 12 months – although the country is working on incentivising fathers, in particular, to take it up.
But interestingly, despite the many benefits Japan has to offer families, don’t be surprised if locals themselves seem critical, says McCagg. “You might hear a lot of pessimism, because we always hear about all the positive sides of other countries and compare that to Japan,” she explained. “It’s also a cultural thing, where you’re supposed to ‘talk down’ about something that you identify with to seem humble. But I would say that Japan is a really nice place to raise children.”
One of Estonia’s biggest draws for families is its education system (Credit: Visualspace/Getty Images)
While Estonia isn’t at the top of Unicef’s rankings overall, it rates highly for a number of important aspects. Children are exposed to less air pollution, less noise pollution and fewer pesticides than in almost any other wealthy country. It has more urban green space than many other nations, including the US, Canada, Australia and the UK, and children are especially likely to say that they enjoy their neighbourhood recreation facilities, such as playgrounds. Estonia also has the second-lowest rate of babies born underweight of any wealthy country, generally considered to be a good indicator of the quality of prenatal care.
One of the biggest draws, however, might be Estonia’s education system: children have better maths, science and literacy skills than any country outside Asia. Digital skills are emphasised, too. “Already in kindergartens, there are robotics, smart tablets and so on, all used as part of play-based learning,” said Anne-Mai Meesak, a project manager at Estonia’s education and youth board who researches the country’s early education systems.
But the system’s benefits go beyond reading and robotics. A recent OECD report found that the average Estonian five-year-old is better at various social-emotional skills, including cooperating with other children and identifying emotions, than those in the US and England. They’re also well above the OECD average for self-regulation skills like mental flexibility, working memory and inhibiting impulses.
Then there is family leave: Estonia has one of the most generous policies of any country in the world, with 100 days of maternity leave as well as 30 days of paternity leave followed by 475 days of paid parental leave, to be split – or used part-time – up until the child is three. For up to 60 of those days, both parents can stay home simultaneously and both be paid. Each parent also receives 10 working days per year of paid parental leave for each child under 14. (This leave is available to both permanent and temporary residents of Estonia, including foreigners.)
Spain ranks highly for the environment around children as well as for kids’ mental well-being (Credit: Sol de Zuasnabar Brebbia/Getty Images)
Spain rated highest in Unicef’s ranking of the environment around children, with especially low levels of children’s morbidity due to air or water pollution. And despite having poorer overall offerings in terms of social, education and health services, according to Unicef, children in Spain have notably high well-being: the county ranks third for kids’ mental well-being and fourth for basic academic and social skills. In particular, it’s on par with the Netherlands in terms of how many children say they make friends easily (81%), while the adolescent suicide rate is one of the lowest of wealthy countries and less than one-third of that in the US, Canada, Australia or New Zealand.
It’s really socially acceptable here to take your kid everywhere – restaurants, bars. It’s totally normal to see a family with a small child walking around at midnight
That doesn’t surprise Lori Zaino, who moved to Madrid from Chicago 15 years ago. Now the mother of a toddler, she says that one of the most refreshing aspects of life in Spain is how much the culture embraces children. “It’s really socially acceptable here to take your kid everywhere – restaurants, bars. It’s totally normal to see a family with a small child walking around at midnight,” she said. “It takes a lot of that pressure off to keep your kids quiet and toned down, so they don’t bother other people. In Spain, no one worries about that. Everyone’s kind of happy and loud and just enjoying family time together, out.”
Then there is its parental leave: both mothers and fathers each get 16 weeks of leave paid at 100% of their wages (freelancers are eligible, too), after which the mother can take unpaid leave for up to three years, or reduce her hours. These options are available to any legal resident registered with Spain’s social security system who has made contributions for at least 180 days in the last seven years. As with the other countries listed, it isn’t perfect – lack of available childcare is one especially big issue, with 33% of parents saying they wish there was more available, the highest rate of any wealthy country – but it’s clear the country has a lot to offer families.
Families can easily get out into nature in Finland as forests cover more than 70% of the land area (Credit: Tiina & Geir/Getty Images)
Finland, which comes in fifth overall in Unicef’s most recent report card, scores especially highly in two of the three categories – number one in “world of the child” (which looks at how the environment directly impacts children, such as with air quality), and number two for “world around the child” (which looks at elements of the environment a child interacts with, like schools, traffic hazards and green space).
It’s one of the world’s top-performing countries in terms of children’s literacy and maths skills, and parents are especially likely to think highly of their relationship with their children’s staff at school. Its mortality rate of children aged 5-14 is one of the lowest in the world, less than half of that in the US. And the country offers generous parental leave, including eight weeks of paid maternity leave, a further 14 months of paid parental leave to be split between the parents, and additional childcare leave that can be applied until a child turns three. (Legal residents of Finland who have been covered by health insurance for at least 180 days before the child’s birth in Finland, or in any Nordic, EU or EEA country, are eligible.)
Hadley Dean is a British father of five who has lived with his family in Poland, the Czech Republic and Finland. His family’s current stint is their second time living in Finland, he said, and they love it. One benefit is the amount of green space, even in the capital of Helsinki (Finland has the most urban green space per person of any wealthy country). But it isn’t just the availability of parks that his family enjoys. “What’s different about Helsinki, or Finland, is that the parks are actually very raw, very natural. They’re like a natural forest coming right into the city centre,” Dean said. “There’s a well-known link between being in nature and not suffering from anxiety and depression, so that’s a real positive.”
What about the dark, cold Finnish winters? They’re a price worth paying, Dean says. “You just get used to it – you dress accordingly, you have spikes on your shoes when you go out – and you make the most of it. And summers are absolutely amazing, because you have 22 hours of sunlight.”
The Netherlands offers at least 16 weeks of mandated, fully paid maternity leave and up to six weeks of paid paternity leave (Credit: Buena Vista Images/Getty Images)
Coming in top of Unicef’s overall list for children’s wellbeing is the Netherlands, which does especially well in terms of children’s mental health (it’s number one) and skills (where it ranks third). Nine out of 10 15-year-olds say they have high life satisfaction, the highest proportion of all the countries Unicef examined, and eight in 10 say they make friends easily.
There’s this discourse around how Americans try to teach everyone to be exceptional. Here, there’s a saying: ‘Just be normal, that’s already crazy enough’
Some of this is cultural, explained Olga Mecking, a Polish mother of three who has lived in the Netherlands for 13 years and is the author of the book Niksen: Embracing the Dutch Art of Doing Nothing. “There’s this discourse around how Americans try to teach everyone to be exceptional. Here, there’s a saying: ‘Just be normal, that’s already crazy enough’,” she said – a mindset that she thinks makes for a less pressurised childhood, although, as she’s written before, that may be changing. There’s also a big emphasis on socialising, she added, with groups, clubs and community activities especially common.
But, she says, if Dutch families and children are happy, it’s also due to structural factors. “You can’t have Dutch parenting without the Dutch welfare system,” she noted. “And the Netherlands really offers parents lots of support.” Its family leave policy is one example. It includes at least 16 weeks of mandated, fully paid maternity leave and up to six weeks of paid paternity leave, plus unpaid parental leave that can be taken up until the child turns eight, and is available to anyone who lives and works legally in the Netherlands.