Back in the days when we could fly, we all used to find ourselves sharing airport space with lots of other people. This led to me developing a specific skill. Wherever I was in the world, I could always identify the Swedish families. It wasn’t to do with language or looks or fashion style. No, it was to do with parenting.
If there was a child, or children, sprinting around the airport without the supervision of an adult – they were without a doubt Swedish. If kids were screaming at top volume without parental intervention – Swedish. If restaurant queues were building up because a kid couldn’t decide what to eat – invariably Swedish. In an airport, the Swedish parenting style was on show for everybody to see.
Swedish parenting is child-centric and comparatively free. It can be perceived as permissive and hands-off. Most parents adopt a communicative style with their children, which can seem to the untrained eye that this means there are no boundaries and no consequences. Children are from an early age involved in decisions that affect them, which is in contrast to a more authoritative and punitive style of parenting found in other countries. This leads to a population where self expression and independence is important
Here are 5 typical parenting behaviours in Sweden:
1) Egalitarian parenting. In Sweden, parents get 480 days of paid parental leave to share and, in heterosexual relationships, 90 of those are non-transferable days for fathers only. This is intended to achieve a more equal division of child-rearing responsibilities. This often extends into the division of duties in the home. So both men an women cook, clean, change nappies and stay home with sick children. For Swedes, it’s a no brainier.
2) Cosiness and cuddling. Friday evenings are reserved for family time. Called ‘fredagsmys’, or Friday coziness, it is when families curl up under a blanket, light candles and watch a film or series together—all while eating tacos, pizza, crisps and sweets. It is not unusual for kids to sleep in their parents’ bed until they reach double digits.
3) Right to Day Care. Every child in Sweden has a right to attend day care from one year old. Day care is subsidised and cheap. At Day Care, the kids spend most of their time playing—academia usually begins in earnest around 6 years old. The other reason for organised child care is so that parents can quickly return to the tax-paying workforce – and collectively finance child care and rest of the welfare state.
4) No spanking. Hitting a child is unthinkable – and illegal – in Sweden. Sweden was the first country in the world to ban spanking and all corporal punishment in 1979. As mentioned before, Swedes apply communicative style of parenting and discipline their children by talking and reasoning with them.
5) Go outside. Outdoorsiness starts early with parents leaving their children outside to sleep in their prams in sub zero temperatures. The crisp air is thought to be good for them. In schools, kids go outside and play every day—regardless of the weather. Some day care solutions are set outdoors with kids spending all day every day in the woods. In the summer, it’s not unusual to see naked kids on the beaches, reflecting Sweden’s relaxed attitude to nudity. Sports and being outdoors are highly prioritised in Sweden. Fresh air, and getting dirty, are considered healthy.
So back to those Swedish kids in the airport. Sure, they justifiably could be seen as unruly, disrespectful and unsupervised. But in equal measure, their behaviour can be a result of a flexible, free parental style that encourages independence and self sufficiency from an early age.
I can’t write a series about Swedish icons without mentioning the Swedish chef. He was probably my second introduction to the Swedish culture when he appeared on the Muppet Show in 1975. Abba winning Eurovision in 1974 was my first. And in my ears when the members of Abba spoke – they sounded just like the Swedish chef!
The Swedish chef character is a puppet that was invented by Jim Henson and Frank Oz. The puppet’s live hands where performed by Oz, while Henson controlled the head and did the classic voice. The gobbledygook that the character spoke was supposed to be Swedish, and had the occasional English word thrown in. It was basically gibberish and sounded like ‘hurdy gurdy’ and ‘bork, bork, bork’. He was known for his ridiculous cooking methods, his accident prone nature and the fact that he almost always tried to cook living animals that, in the end, attacked him.
As a kid, I thought that the Swedish chef was hilarious. I don’t know if my love affair with Sweden began there but I certainly found him entertaining and intriguing. To date, he has been seen in over 100 countries, and in some places he might be all they know about Sweden. Interestingly in Germany, he’s known as the Danish Chef.
Real-life Swedish chef Lars Bäckman claims that he is the inspiration for the character. Allegedly he performed catastrophic screen test in the USA in the 70’s which Henson saw and imitated. Bäckman’s claim has however never been corroborated by the Muppet Show.
So, does he sound like a Swede? Well, most Swedes would say absolutely not. To them, he sounds more Norwegian. I can say that in all the years I’ve lived in Sweden, I’ve only heard a handful of people speak in the ‘hurdy gurdy’ style of the Swedish chef when speaking English. It is so unusual that it is almost a shock when you encounter it. So, the answer is no – the Swedish chef is not accurate, but he is a comedy icon in his own way.
Recently somebody was telling me about one of his employees whose mother rang him to discuss her daughter’s salary. Another friend mentioned a man who brought his father to a job interview. I personally know a mother who does her 30-year old son’s laundry, cleaning, decorating and food shopping, even though he has his own apartment. And a 29-year old who asks his mother what he likes and should eat when they’re out at a restaurant. Teachers constantly witness about parents who demand them to increase their child’s grades. And a wave of protecting children from ‘hurt feelings’ is viral in Swedish schools, as though hurt feelings are the worst thing that can happen.
These are all clear examples of overprotective adults who don’t see that they are doing their offspring any favours in life by disempowering them by overhelping.
In Swedish, because it is so common, there is a word for these type of parents. They are known as ‘curling parents’ – a reference to the sport of ice curling. Just like in the icy sport, curling parents smooth the way for their children. They sweep away any obstacles and make life easier. They think they are taking their role as a parent seriously. Life is so difficult anyway that they should try to cushion the blows for their children. But what they’re really doing is robbing their children of the chance to develop essential life skills and feel a sense of personal responsibility and achievement.
This is of course not unique to Sweden – but rather more related to the anxious parenting style of the Baby Boomers and GenX around the world. In English-speaking countries, they are called helicopter parents, because they hover noisily over their children and look for difficulties ahead. Psychologists tell us that this form of parenting has coincided with an increased societal perception of child endangerment which has led to a base of paranoia. The age of the mobile phone has also contributed massively, one researcher referring to it as ‘the world’s largest umbilical chord’.
It is a difficult balance to strike, isn’t it? On the one hand, parents should love, guide and protect their children. On the other hand, they should equip their children to be independent, self-sufficient and capable adults.
Curling is not the solution. Links between overprotective parents and long-term mental problems in their children have been seen. Adult children of curling parents are often unable to regulate their own behavior.
Former Stanford dean Julie Lythcott-Haims, drawing from her experiences seeing students come in academically prepared but not prepared to fend for themselves, wrote a book called ‘How to Raise an Adult’, in which she urges parents to avoid “overhelping” their children.
So I urge all parents in Sweden and beyond to take a long look at themselves. Are you overbearing, overprotective and over-controlling? Do you oversee every aspect of your child’s life? Are you providing yourself with happiness and security at the expense of your children?
Around this time of the year, schools In Sweden have a week’s holiday. Called ‘Sportlov‘, it’s a traditional time for a winter sport break.
This tradition was introduced in the early years of WW2 as a way to save energy. Heating up schools cost money and, due to rationing, councils were instructed to drastically reduce their heating expenses. So shutting the schools seemed like a good idea.
To give the pupils something meaningful to do while the school was shut, the authorities organised various activities, many focused on being outdoors and exercising.
Serendipitously, experts realised, during the 1950’s, that infection spread less widely at this time of the year if schools were closed for a week. So the winter sport break became cemented as an official disease control method.
Nowadays, many families head off to the mountains to go skiing, some head off to the Alps for the same purpose. Others may fly away to the sunny beaches of the world.
For those of us left in town, it’s sheer bliss.
The gym is empty. The streets are spacious. There is hardly anybody on the buses and tube, traffic is significantly thinner and less noisy and it’s easy to get a seat at lunch time.
And the fact that there are hardly any children in town means something great for the rest of us.
We don’t get infected with diabolical kid bacteria that would knock us out until mid March.
Did you know that every minute, 4 children are sold into the sex industry around the world? An estimated 2,000,000 children are victims of sex trade and many more in human trafficking. These figures are hard to grasp, and even harder to process. Sexual trading of children can involve local boys who are abused by tourists, impoverished girls who are sold as sex slaves to rich families, or children who are ordered like fast food on the internet. The actions of the perpetrators are ruthless and the list of assaults is endless.
But we can do something about it.
‘Children are not for sale’ is the theme of this year’s charitable Music Aid (Musikhjälpen) project in Sweden. For the tenth year in a row, three radio hosts are locked into a glass cube for 6 days on a square in a town somewhere in Sweden. This year the event takes places in the northern city of Umeå, and the hosts broadcast music and tv non-stop day and night to gather donations for their good cause. To raise money one can, amongst other things, request a song, carry out a fund-raising action and bid in the various auctions that take place. This is Swedish solidarity at its very best.
Today, 17 Dec, is their final day of incarceration – the hosts are let out of their glass cube this evening and the total amount that has been raised will be announced. The millions of crowns that they gather will be spent on prevention of the child sex trade, protection of at-risk children and rehabilitation of children who have been victims.
It is still not too late for you to make a donation. Download the Musikhjälpen app (mh2017) and make a contribution! You can also go to http://www.musikhjalpen.se or find the same on Facebook. Every donation counts!
Your contribution can save a child from a terrible, terrible fate.
Please donate! Please share this blog with your friends and encourage them to do the same.
A friend of mine was visiting at the weekend with her small child, and she forgot one of her books when she left. I looked through it and was struck by how the story book reflected Swedish society and lifestyle: a picture book designed to groom children in the Swedish way.
The book is called ‘Titta Max grav’ – ‘Look, Max’s grave!‘ – and it was first published in 1991 and written by Barbro Lindgren and Eva Eriksson. The book is a fascinating account of the life of a little boy called Max from the cradle to the grave. He is born, learns to walk and talk, gets a dog, goes to school, becomes a banker, finds a woman (unclear if they are married), has a child. But then it all goes downhill for Max. He watches too much television, so his woman gets sick of him and leaves. He gets sick, wants to consume Swedish ‘snus’ (snuff), gets sicker and eventually dies alone. And the final picture – look, Max’s grave.
The ‘simple’ story promotes many Swedish values which guide Swedish society: all children receive an education, men and women don’t have to be married to have children, women are empowered to leave useless men, everybody receives healthcare, many people die alone.
There’s nothing specifically unique about this particular book. All cultures pass on their values to their children via stories. Sometimes these are verbal stories told by grandparents as they entertain their grandchildren. Sometimes these are communicated via tv or other screens to curious minds.
Very often they are transmitted via ‘simple’ books full of pictures and easy words by parents at bedtime. But these books are actually not simple at all: they are cultural mechanisms designed to pass on values and ethics and indoctrinate children into the prevailing sense of morality.
So those of you with small children. Have you refelcted over what the stories are teaching your children? How are you indoctrinating them?
In the hustle and bustle of urban city life there is still room for fairy tales. Out on the museum island of Djurgården, you’ll find a place dedicated to them. A perfect destination for kids and families, Junibacken celebrates the fantastical stories of various Swedish writers, especially the writer Astrid Lindgren. Astrid Lindgren is today still very popular in Sweden and she is the third most translated children’s author after Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm. She’s estimated to have sold a staggering 144 million books worldwide and has a whole army of fictional characters to her name.
Here at Junibacken you can meet all of her most well-known characters such as the airborne Karlsson on the roof, the naughty Emil of Lönnerberga, the feisty Ronja the robber’s daughter and the internationally renowned Pippi Longstocking. After traveling the museum train, children arrive at the home of the world’s strongest girl where they can play as wildly as they like.
A visit to Junibacken is a thoroughly Swedish experience, seen through the eyes of children. It is also a testament to a beloved national treasure that ensures her stories will never be forgotten.