I think that it’s fair to say that a lot of Brits are fascinated by how other countries parent. Just see the obsession with all things French (on that note, you must read this fascinating article from US Vogue). When it comes to parenting, Sweden has long had a reputation of having it pretty much sorted – the shared/extended maternity and paternity leave, being outdoors no matter the weather, the amazing childcare provision… But, really, is being a parent in Sweden all that? To find out, we asked Juliet Nilsson, author of The Hounds of Falsterbo and founder of the Vind & Våg publishing house, and mother of Sebastian (Sebba) 12, Oliver (Bear) 10 and Elizabeth (Betty) 3. Jules (who grew up in the UK) has raised her children in both the UK and the Sweden, so is perfectly placed when it comes to comparing the two. Read on, it really is fascinating, while I guarantee the cost of childcare will leave your eyes watering…*
When and why did you move to Sweden?
I first moved to Stockholm when I was 22 having been in a long distance relationship with a gorgeous Swedish man who became my husband in 2001. We have since lived in both Sweden and the UK over the past 15 years. We most recently returned to Sweden in 2009 when our eldest son was officially school age to begin a new life experience with a growing family.
Where do you live?
We live in a quiet pine forest called Ljungskögen on Nåset in Southern Sweden, an area considered to be the Scandinavian Hamptons. From my window I can see a nature reserve and the start of Ljunghusen Golf Course. There are no street lights or paved roads, deer and pheasant wander freely around the forest and an idyllic white sandy beach is a ten minute stroll away. The real deal clincher for me was that the house we bought came with a white wooden beach hut situated just behind the sand dunes. It was love at first sight.
You had one of your boys in the UK and two of your children in Sweden. Did you notice any differences in how each country approaches pregnancy and birth?
Sebba was born in Sweden, Bear in London and Betty in Sweden. I feel very blessed that my first pregnancy and labour took place in Sweden. I was 25 and had never held a baby, or babysat or had any experience with babies. The Swedish holistic approach to pregnancy was something which I really enjoyed. I wanted to avoid any intervention and was allowed to be in total control and though I was observed by a Barnmorska (midwife) throughout the pregnancy and birth, at no time did they take any proactive role in my labour apart from the last 10 minutes. I really believe the confidence that they gave me enabled me to feel that I could follow my birth plan and rights as a mother.
Induction is very common in the UK and a major reason why intervention often leads to long deliveries and C-sections. In Sweden with my last pregnancy they let me go 21 days over full term to ensure that I had the chance to give birth naturally. Whereas, in London my second son was 7 days overdue and the midwife wanted to induce me as it was approaching the May Bank holiday and they would be running a reduced skeleton staff. I refused, still feeling confident after my great birthing experience in Sweden. After much heated debate, I was allowed to wait the full 14 days after full term. My son came on April 30th, a perfect six hour birth and a 10.2 lb baby with no intervention or drugs.
In Sweden they also have a brilliant system call Patienthotel (The patient’s hotel) where first time parents are given a suite where they can remain with the baby after birth and stay together for 2 to 3 nights. My husband and I valued this experience greatly. I was taught, amongst many other things how to hold my baby and breastfeed correctly which was a huge help as I was quite alone in Sweden and the first of all my friends to have a baby.
Is it true that Swedes leave their buggies outside cafes when they’re having a coffee?
Yes. I think in cities there are maybe fewer sleeping babies being left outside than in 2002 when I was a first time mummy in Malmö, but it does still frequently happen. I know that certainly cafes near where I live in Falsterbo have a designated place to park buggies outside and even baby listening devices you can borrow, so mothers can relax and enjoy their meal while their baby slumbers peacefully outside.
How do Swedish women approach the whole feeding the children thing? Is there a typically Swedish ways of doing things?
Swedes breastfeed absolutely everywhere. I was never made to feel uncomfortable nursing in a public place. I literally lived in John Lewis when I had a newborn in London as it was the only place where a nursing facility was available! In Sweden you are treasured if you are nursing your baby and it makes the whole experience so pleasant. Breastfeeding is very much supported.
All children are weaned after breastfeeding onto välling and baby porridge. Välling is a factory produced powder which is mixed with water, like formula, and is a form of oatmeal based substitute that provides all the vitamins and minerals for babies and young children. It is a much loved tradition that all Swedish children drink välling at night time to ease a long comfortable sleep.
What fascinates me is how after all the breastfeeding, which most Swedish babies experience, most mothers will then switch to this processed välling and pre-made jar foods. It seems a strange juxtaposing view considering the wholesome hembakat (home baking) obsession of Swedish women.
The average child’s diet in Sweden is very much limited to several dishes using minced meat or sausages. Regulars include Korvstroganoff (sausage casserole), korvo med bröd (hotdogs), köttbullar meat balls and potatoes and tacos fredagsmus (Friday cosy) the evening meal that Swedish children have every Friday night as a treat. I am also stunned at the amount of soft drinks and sweets served to children at every opportunity possible. Swedes consume the largest quantity of “pick and mix style” candy in Europe and it is given out at every opportunity. When we were planning our Parents Association School Christmas party, the main events were a candy hunt, a candy shower (where you throw vast handfuls of sweets in the air and children run madly to grab as much as they can) and the godis påse (sweety bag) that they leave with at the end of the party. Saying that most Swedish children do drink vast quantities of milk, eat cracker bread and have lots of fresh berries and fish in their diet as well. So in essence there is a liberal tone in the way Swedes approach feeding their children.
What’s the Swedish approach to childcare?
As the state run daycare system dagis is very inexpensive and very well run almost everyone returns to work when their child is typically between 18-22 months old. As a result there are no activities to attend in Sweden when your child is 18 months or older as there’s no demand for clubs or music groups, toddler cafes or swimming classes during the day. I discovered this in 2006 and it was one of the main reasons why we returned to London from Sweden when my first child was 14 months old as I was the only mother who was intending to remain at home. London was awash with brilliant activities for young mothers whereas in Sweden everyone relies on dagis to provide the stimulation and interaction for young children whilst parents work.
My daughter has been at dagis since she was 22 months old. I am totally converted as the dagis experience we have had with Betty has been exceptional. We pay approximately £120 a month for 25+ hours a week of flexible childcare [Ed’s note: Alex falls over in shock]. The environment is very well run and the facilities in our dagis are excellent. Betty begins her day at dagis at 9.00 am and is collected by 3.00pm Mon-Thursday. The downside to dagis is that many parents who both work full-time leave their children at 7:45am and do not collect them until 5:30/6.00pm Monday to Friday. I think it’s too long. Grandparents in Sweden also take a far less active role due to the existence of dagis.
Having said that to have a dagis system similar to the structure we have in Sweden would completely revolutionise women’s working capacity in the UK. The Swedish childcare system is one of the finest in the world and though I was very skeptical about the institutionalisation of children from such a young age, the environmental and pedagogic research which has gone into providing great early year care is excellent. Having paid £3000 a term for a morning nursery place for three days a week at an excellent North London nursery the Swedish experience takes nursery to a different level at a fraction of the cost.
It obviously depends from family to family, but what’s the general approach to looking after the home and children?
Generally the running of the home and family is split 50/50. Men are proud to take care of their children. Many fathers clearly enjoy being pappaledigt (free father) and I get the sense that domestic duties are quite equally shared in most families. I know women who expect their husbands to do their share of cooking and cleaning and many families where the man is in charge of the laundry and the woman the rest of the housework. Having said that, more and more domestic support is available for Swedish families and Swedes are now beginning to ‘buy in’ domestic services, which was not the case 12 years ago.
Men and women wish to be equally successful and you really get a strong sense of this when you meet Swedish women. They will not be manipulated into thinking that home is their domaine. My husband does all the cooking when he is not travelling and loves to iron his own shirts. He refused to ever clean so instead pays for a cleaner and is delighted to have a role in his children’s schedule and this is very accepted by most employers. As a woman married to a Swede I think I have a pretty marvellous deal!
What is maternity and paternity leave like in Sweden?
The maternity and paternity leave is excellent in Sweden and both parents are actively supported to take care of their pre-school children and share the 18 months of entitled leave. You can transfer 7 out of the 9 months of leave to your partner, though you must take at least 2 months yourself or this time is lost. It is also helpful that these days can be taken up until the child reaches 6 years of age. On average 1/3 of men take paternity leave. 80% of the salary is paid by the state and this is often topped up by some employers as a loyalty incentive. When you are on maternity or paternity leave you are not allowed to be fired which provides parents with extra protection whilst they stay home to be with their children.
What age do children start school in Sweden?
Children usually begin school in Förskolan klass (grade 0) in the sixth year of their life. In grade 0 parents are still entitled to take the children out of school for a day or two each week as it is considered a flexible transitional year before school properly begins the following year at the age of 7.
Have you noticed any big differences in terms of education?
The educational differences have been the biggest adjustment for our family since returning to Sweden. We put the children directly into Swedish state school. There are no private schools in Sweden as the State school system has a good reputation and my husband’s experience was a successful one.
As my children only attended 3 years of Swedish school before being moved to an International (IB) school, I can only speak directly from our primary school experience. My boys arrived from the UK aged 5 and 6 being able to read and write with good basic numeracy. No real literacy is taught in Sweden until the second grade, around 7-8 years old. During that time the boys had a wonderful experience going on excursions to the forests and beaches, playing and learning about friendship and nature. There were tea light candles lit on every child’s desk with soft music being played as children entered the class room.
However, within 2 years the literacy and especially mathematical standards of my eldest son had dropped to a worrying level. The school system disappointed us hugely as there appeared to be no discipline and the children were given vast amounts of freedom. As a worried parent I sat in and observed several classes where children meandered in and out of the class rooms during lessons, no respect was shown to the teacher and some children actually wore bright yellow industrial earphones to cut out noise as there was persistent chattering and it was hard to concentrate. There were no simple spelling tests or mental maths tests, assessments or competitive activities such as sports day and if you are more than able to complete the tasks or reading supplied by the teacher you were not given additional material. It was worrying and led my son aged 9 to become completely disengaged in the classroom as there was no motivation or incentive to really apply himself. Homework was still sporadic in grade 3, not collected in or marked and was often considered optional.
I felt I had been duped by my Swedish husband and all this promise of a fabulous free education in Sweden was some urban myth we had pinned our hopes on. All that considered, I have met some fantastic teenagers and high school leavers and it’s clear that the educational system dramatically accelerates as the children move into the middle school years. However, this was a risk we weren’t prepared to take and with a disinterested 10 year old and utterly bewildered 8 year old we transferred our boys to the International IB school in the city. There we have met many other Swedish parents seeking a better level of education and discipline as well as mixed nationality families equally concerned about schooling. In recent months there’ve also been some damming reports about the Swedish educational system in the national press so there will be some reforms to come no doubt.
We will be sending my son to school in England when he is 13. The facilities and teaching standard can’t, in my opinion, be found in Sweden and the exposure to a greater level of opportunity to be prepared for a global work place isn’t possible in the Swedish education system today. I’m aware that there are many vastly successful Swedes in London, but I personally cannot imagine anything better for my son than to be given the best education I believe he can receive.
Swedish children are thought of being very outdoorsy, do they spend more time outside than British kids?
Absolutely and this is one aspect of Swedish schooling which I do love. In Sweden there is this great saying, “There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing!” My children are out in all weathers as all break times must be spent outside regardless of the rain or snow. Some schools and daycares run their entire school day outside. From about October my children are wearing full ski clothes and insulated boots right up until April some years. Insulated gloves and boots are heated up in specially designed warming cupboards, like you find in ski chalets, so that cold hand and feet are avoided.
Has your style of parenting changed since living in Sweden?
My children have demanded so much more freedom since moving to Sweden and right from the beginning this was a challenge for me. In London I would never take my eyes off my children if we were out walking or playing in a park. Here children are actively encouraged to walk to friends’ houses or bike to the tennis courts alone from the age of 7 or 8. This summer my eldest son and I had a huge debate about why he was not allowed to cycle down to the beach alone with his friends, he was just about to turn 11. Eventually I gave in and he returned home proud and happy ready to share his adventures during that afternoon on the beach. I’d spent the afternoon in agony thinking about various terrifying scenarios. Now I allow my 10 year old to cycle home from handball in the dark with his best friend at 7.30 pm and feel almost fine, as long as his helmet is on, bike lights are working and he has his mobile phone. This is major progress for me!
What’s the best thing about the Swedish attitude to parenting?
I think allowing children to be children for longer and avoiding any pressure until a child is around the age of 7 or 8 is very positive. The Swedes have a very pedagogic way of approaching education which has excellent benefits for the individual child. Being a very inclusive society no one is left on the outside which has many positive aspects for children as they all develop at different rates. Boys and girls are all educated together as there is no single sex schooling. Girls can play ice hockey and football and occasionally teams are mixed. Emancipation is present from the very beginning and I think this bodes well for men and women and their transition into the workplace.
It is impressive how everyone in Sweden still appears to have equal opportunities regardless of their personal circumstances or background. I hope this aspect of Swedish society is preserved as it is quite unique.
What’s the worst?
I think it’s unnatural and unhealthy to have no competition or goals to strive for at school. As much as the underdog should be considered so should the high achiever or ambitious child. I also think that a relaxed and open style of parenting which often dominates the family and society is harmful. It’s my belief that Sweden used to have many more boundaries for children and these have been diminished too quickly. Boundaries and respect are fundamental for a thriving and positive youth generation and it concerns me that these values are not apparent enough in school and society.
So, is Swedish parenting really more permissive than in the UK?
Absolutely. Most children by the age of 9 or 10 have a front door key and walk or cycle home from school alone. School finishes typically at 2.30pm and children are often home alone until 5.30pm or are in the care of an elder sibling. Parents allow children huge amounts of freedom and trust. Children are left alone at home from a much younger age and we often see parents out and about and their relatively young children are home alone. Alcohol is beginning to become more of a problem amongst young people in Sweden as the state run Systembolaget (the government run liquor stores) which requires you to be over 21 is not able to control the illegal alcohol influx from Denmark and Germany. Hopefully it will be a while before I am facing that particular issue with my children but Sweden has a huge disconnect with alcohol and teenagers drinking and this is something which needs to be addressed.
* See, I told you your eyes would be watering – aren’t you just crying about how expensive British childcare is in comparison?
Top Image: Jenny Brandt for Lonny