How Nordic attitudes to kids involve more empathy and a different sort of parenting judgment
Parenting is a judgey business. As a parent you read about, talking about and do parenting on a daily basis. You face continual challenges as your little trolls change each time you’ve just gotten use to something. You adapt, and after so many adaptations you become an expert on your kid. We also believe we are experts on all other children.
So when we see other parents doing something we disagree with we stare and judge, and they feel it. It would be a lie to claim that Swedish parents don’t also judge. All experts have opinions about others in their field. But the judgment comes from a different perspective and makes a big difference.
How has the increasingly popular idea of 'lagom' influenced childcare in Sweden?
Swedes love the quirks of their language, and few words give them so much pride as 'lagom'. The English-speaking world has been flooded with books on the word, together with the Danish word 'hygge' (similar to the Swedish 'mysa') and even the Finish 'sisu', the word 'lagom' has become a handy way of summarising the Nordic approach to living.
The word sort of translates to 'just right' from the story of Goldilocks. It's the moderate temperature, action or words that sit between two extremes. It's the sweet spot that makes you content. So in context: Pappa: ‘How much milk do you want Little Bear?’; Little Bear ‘Just lagom Pappa’ (unhelpful).
Why Sweden is great for small kids
One of my big worries about moving to Stockholm was whether such a small city would have all the facilities for kids I was use to for Little Bear. In London, we were out every single day we had together. And to avoid going crazy with boredom, that requires a lot of variety and for activities to be affordable and accessible. I felt London was pretty good in that regard, despite the terrible wheel unfriendly transport system. Catering for around 8 to 10 million people, London had the infrastructure to be an ‘out and about’ kind of dad that I needed.
In an attempt to make new friends and get Little Bear playing with other kids, we’ve started going to ‘Open Pre-schools’ around Stockholm. These are similar to play groups in that they have pre-school activities, but each kid has a parent with them and you can just turn up (with coffee, tea and cakes included).
The thing that shocked me most about these open pre-schools was the distribution of mums and dads joining in at these coffee gatherings, full of chat, baby-songs and playdough.
Why does Astrid Lindgren set Sweden apart from the rest of the world?
When thinking about the costs of moving to Scandinavia, one thing I really didn't think I'd miss are the kids books, nursery rhymes and baby songs from the UK. Yes, even the really annoying English babysongs like Wind the Bobbin Up (nobody under 80 knows wtf a bobbin is, so let's stop pretending).
We got a couple of English books out of the local library in Stockholm (which is gigantic compared to the libraries with 5 books nobody wants to read you find in London). But by-and-large, I've been keen to get more into the local Nordic 'child literature' as it's called here (to make it sound fancier).
Swedes take their kid books very seriously. At the centre of the world of Nordic kid literature is Astrid Lindgren and her Pippi Longstockings stories. Then follows the dozens of other characters and worlds that sprang from Lindgren’s pen, and then further culturally iconic authors that followed in her footsteps to make a unique brand of stories for Nordic kids.
So far, I’ve been warmed, shocked and confused by the stories that Nordics read their kids. What is acceptable and even expected in children’s books here in Sweden is very different from what we get in the English speaking world, and it might even play out into how they kids see the world.
First day and feeling more chilled about public meltdowns
Ever felt embarrassed or guilty when your kid causes a scene in public? Felt that pressure from other people to get them ‘under control’ as quickly as you can, when you know it’s nearly impossible? Shortly after our arrival in Stockholm, the different attitude to kids start to become apparent. Kids have tantrums because they haven’t learnt to regulate their emotions yet. The Nordic approach leans onlookers towards being nice to the kids (and even the parents in the process!).
Saying goodbye is the hardest part of leaving. It's tough for us, but how do we prep our kids?
How do you get a toddler to understand they’re moving country? Well, I’m proud to say that Little Bear has been confidently and happily announcing that we’re ‘moving till ‘tockho’m soon’and that it’s going to be ‘weally, weally fun’. He’s even excited about ‘riding da boat to Tockhom’(no, we’re not mad, we’re actually flying there). No trauma, no fears of displacement. He’s clearly fine with it all…
Well, let’s be honest, he’s two. He has no f-ing idea what’s about to happen. I could have told him we were moving to a dessert in Afghanistan or a frozen lake in Siberia for the rest of our lives, and he’d be equally ecstatic.
I’m pretty sure there’s no sensible solution to ‘getting them ready for the move’. When they’ve spent their entire lives in one home regularly meeting the same friends, they’re just not yet aware enough to understand the enormity of moving to a new country. Pre-moving, it’s a lot more difficult for us adults.
What makes Scandinavians the happiest and most successful people in the world? Why does the Nordic way of doing things seem to work so well? I have a theory: quite unprovable, and a little controversial. I think there’s an explanation for why Stockholm has one of the highest concentrations of tech start-ups in the world per capita, why Finland has the best education system in the world, why Nordic countries always hit the top of the world happiness and welfare tables and why life expectancy in Norway is practically 100.
I recon it’s largely down to how they raise their kids. Happy babies and happy parents make happy and successful societies. Get it right from the start, and your setting up a whole generation of new little Vikings for living a good life and expecting it from those around them.
I might be biased being Little Bear’s Pappa, so I think I need to test out my theory a little more. Which got me thinking: why not move there and find out?... Ok, so there are a couple of other reasons to move to Scandinavia as well, but to avoid the politics, let’s just focus on this one.
London is an amazing place to be born, live and raise a family in. Despite our reputation, Londoners are a neighbourly bunch, welcoming people from all over the world, with 40% of the population born outside of the little island it’s perched on. It’s a really vibrant and great place to call home, and we’ve been lucky enough to get to start our family in Greenwich, which is a particular gem of the city.
But our time here is closing, we’ve packed up the house (freaking Little Bear out in the process), nearly all our possessions (70% toys, of which over half is his train set) have been sent ahead, and soon we’ll be landing in Stockholm to start a new family chapter.
I think along with many of the friends we’re leaving, and countless other parents in the English-speaking world, parenting is changing rapidly. Parents are becoming nicer and more tolerant to their kids, they are increasingly leaning away from overbearing discipline and seeing their role as just training little adults, and thinking more about kids as kids, and how parents can get their little people to have fun.
But there is something different about the Nordic approach to kids, something deeper in Nordic culture. I can’t put my finger on it, but it seems like a different cultural starting point to how kids are seen in Nordic countries compared to where I grew up.
This isn’t to say that Danish parents wont shout at their kids, or Swedes wont lose their cool when their kids keep on ignoring them. Of course these things happen in the ‘North’. But from my experience, they happen far less often, and the cultural attitudes to kids and childcare lean the other way, expecting more tolerance from parents and other adults towards the little trolls that are just starting to learn the way in the world.
I was initially sceptical about this approach to kids, it seemed to remove a lot of the things we’re trained in the English-speaking world to think are essential in bringing up responsible and self-reliant citizens.
But I cannot see any evidence of a modern race of violent, irresponsible or clingy adults occupying the Nordic countries. The Viking age is long over, and the Scandinavians I know are generally smart, well-balanced and content people. In fact, the evidence of where these countries tend to score in international league tables tends put them way up top. I want to find out just what the differences, good andbad, are.
So now we’re moving to Stockholm, in the heart of ‘the North’, and I’ll be settling Little Bear in to his new home while my wife starts work. It’ll be more than just trips to Ikea, talking hurdy-gurdy and snacking on cinnamon buns (although it’ll include these too of course).
Moving your family within one country is difficult, so I imagine starting afresh in a different country all together, with different friends, attitudes and nursery rhymes is going to be pretty tough. But the long-term goal I’ll be keeping in mind is to see just how different approaches to kids are in Nordic countries compared to the English-speaking world. To see just what it takes move from being a Londoner to becoming a Nordic Dad.
Moving from London to Stockholm, this blog is about learning to become a Nordic Dad as I settle Little Bear into his new home
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