Why Sweden is not the Perfect Parenting Example We thought it Was

If I read an article about schooling, bedsharing and generally ‘positive parenting’ practices it’s almost guaranteed that Sweden will get a mention only a few paragraphs in.

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Held in incredibly high regard because of their long maternity leave (almost a year and a half at 80% of full salary) and even more so for their forward thinking shared parental leave which has been in existence since 1974 Swedish policy makers can certainly be described as ‘forward thinking’.

Then there is the relative normality of bedsharing with some studies reporting up to 65% of new babies sharing the Swedish family bed and the high incidence of breastfeeding. In Sweden a huge 84% of mothers exclusively breastfeed at birth and 53% are still exclusively breastfeeding at 4 months postpartum, this is in stark contrast to the 65% of mothers who exclusively breastfeed at birth and the 7% who are still exclusively breastfeeding at 4 months postpartum in the UK.

Add to this Sweden’s C-Section rate of 17.1% compared to the UK’s 23.7, It is little wonder that the prevalence of postnatal depression is significantly lower in Sweden at 9% compared to the UK incidence of 14.4%.

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Lastly, there is the delayed age of starting school in Sweden, commonly quoted as the ‘best schooling system’ in the world, with children beginning kindergarten/preschool at the age of 6 years and not beginning formal education until they reach 7 years old, a full 3 years later than the beginning of formal education in the UK.

It really does seem as if Sweden has this parenting business licked doesn’t it?

However what the glowing articles don’t mention is the immense pressure for mothers to return to full time work and leave their very young children in the care of heavily subsidised daycare. At first glance this may seem like another tremendous positive of the Swedish lifestyle with the Swedish government promising affordable childcare for all, with the maximum Swedish childcare fee capped at 1,260 SEK per month (approximately £102) for the first child and less for subsequent children. Compared to the average UK nursery bill of around £700 per month. What the glossy reports fail to mention though is the effect of effectively forcing new mothers back into the full time workplace, on the mothers themselves and perhaps most importantly the children. A point that is surely pertinent considering that 90% of Swedish children grow up in the care of nurseries and childminders rather than at home with their parent(s).

Another point that rarely makes it into the glowing Swedish parenting articles is that home education has been illegal in the country since 2010, whilst it is supposedly allowed under special circumstances (e.g: student health reasons or family travel) these special circumstances are virtually never approved and the relevant officials often ignore legally permitted appeals.

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There is a growing level of dis-ease with the Swedish system that is slowly filtering through the otherwise positive articles with researcher Jonas Himmelstrand leading the way in trying to raise awareness. Himmelstrand is less than a fan of the Swedish system and when asked about the UK Government’s proposals to emulate the system commented “‘Swedish schools have among the highest truancy, the greatest classroom disorder, the most damage to property and the most offensive language of all comparable nations…Emulating the Swedish approach, where both the staff-to-child ratio and the number of hours children spend in day care are both increasing, is not the answer and is actually damaging to your children’s future.”

Himmelstrand points to the tripled rates of psychological problems suffered by Swedish schoolgirls since the 1980s and also mentions that the Swedish schooling system, widely regarded as perhaps the best in the world, now produce average results and are below average for maths; and that Swedish schools now have among the worst discipline problems in Europe. Media reports of Himmelstrand’s recent speech at the House of Commons can be seen HERE.

With a current rate of 92 per cent of all 18 months to five-year-olds in Sweden in day care, some even at night time, you only have to wonder what the long term effects of this policy will be. Back in 1951 John Bowlby discussed his now famous maternal deprivation hypothesis and commented that “…the infant and young child should experience a warm, intimate, and continuous relationship with his mother (or permanent mother substitute) in which both find satisfaction and enjoyment.” indicating that the first three years of life are crucial for the future emotional and physical health of the child. I find Sweden’s parenting decisions curious indeed – on the one hand supportive of natural birth and the immediate needs of the postnatal mother and newborn, but why the dramatic change in the child’s second year of life? What price will Sweden’s future generations face for their early and prolonged seperation of mother and child? Perhaps they are not really the parenting gurus we thought they were?

Sarah Ockwell-Smith

About SarahOckwell-Smith

Sarah Ockwell-Smith, Parenting author and mother to four.
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