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.
You are NOT judged if your kid has a meltdown in public, nor if your kid bumps into an adult whilst playing (yes, someone had a go at me for this the other month in London). You are not judged for not punishing your kid if they play up, or for your kid having mud on their coat/trousers/face when outside. And you are not judged for giving your kid too many buns (thankfully or I’d be in a lot of trouble).
But you are judged if you lose your lagom cool. You are judged if you forget to parent through your kids eyes.
This doesn’t mean that you let your kid decide everything, but there seems to be a widespread attitude amongst Swedish adults that we should all empathise with how a kid is feeling to guide us how to act.
Seeing it from the tot’s point of view – Scandi attitudes
From the ‘oh dear, it is difficult being tired’ Little Bear got on our first day here in Stockholm, to inner anguished impulse of a lot of Swedish adults to hug a child in the midst of a tantrum. I’ve seen a lot more empathy towards kids since I’ve arrived.
Small children are not emotionally developed yet, and they have all those feelings that we have but they don’t yet understand where they come from or how to regulate them. This means that the following things I use to hear about kids just don’t make sense to many Nordic parents:
‘Don’t be so selfish’ (wanting to keep a toy)
‘You’re being deliberately awkward’ (mid-meltdown)
‘Don’t be so ungrateful’
‘They’re trying to manipulate us’ (asking the other parent for something the first denied)
‘Don’t’ be silly’
‘There’s nothing to be afraid of’
‘There’s no reason to get angry’
‘Stop feeling [insert any feeling we don’t want them to have here]’
All of these stem from a belief that the brain of a small child should be like an adult. If the child isn’t behaving an a way an adult would, there must be something wrong that we can point out so that they can regulate it and do the right thing.
Of course, since kids haven’t learnt to do that yet, all that these phrases do to kids is tell them that something is wrong, and they don’t know what it is. They’re sad so they cry, they got angry for a reason even if nobody knows what it is. They don’t understand the fairly complicated idea of gratitude yet.
Seeing the world from their kids' perspective means that a lot of Swedish adults react in a much nicer way to kids. Tantrums are not only about my emotional travails as a parent trying to get the unreasonable kid out the door in time, but they are also about the crazy strong and uncontrollable emotional experiences of this tiny person.
It leads to a lot more talking, cooing and cuddles. It is also very common for adults to laugh a little at a 'miss-behaving' or melting-down kid, and not get some caught up in the drama. Often followed by the adult apologising for the laugh and explaining that they understand it's tough.
And one of the sweetest things I’ve noticed, is when the slightly older kids copy the adults around them. These tiny developing human beings spend time to do the same to Little Bear and other tots: talk to them and how they're feeling.
Judged for not being lagom
So how does this relate to parental judgyness? Well I have noticed that when the barriers of a Swedish parent do finally break, and they shout at their kid. Not only are the kids almost universally shocked into silence after only one parental bark (a sign that they’re clearly not used to adults raising their voices), but all the other parents stare at them.
The parent that snapped will rarely continue at that point, but will suddenly calm down and sheepishly take their kid elsewhere. There is then a conversation with the kid where the mum or dad apologises for losing their temper.
One thing that is clear is that parents that shout at their kids to impose discipline do not feel like they have righteously imposed order on an unruly child. They feel like they lost control of the situation, and let their own emotions that should have been regulated get out of control.
I don’t like the judgyness that parents throw at each other. I think it’s unpleasant and makes the very tough job of parenting even more stressful, just when we don’t need that. So I think that could be done away with. It would also been very unfair to judge a heroic single-mum for snapping at her kids when she’s struggling to cope after a long day. She has a difficult emotional life too!
It’s even less fair when such a parent still has no idea of how different the emotional life of a toddler is to an adult. Especially if the dads and mums are use to hearing things the above phrases all the time.
But recognising that kids have emotionally different lives to us and empathising a bit in those difficult situations, has made parenting easier for me (since my anger calms when I realise Little Bear is just having strong feelings), and hopefully the experience of growing up a little easier for my little troll.
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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