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).
All in moderation. The 'lagom' amount of chocolate is enough so that you feel happy, but not too much to feel guilty or ill once it's gone (and certainly not to take more than your fair share!). The 'lagom' approach to dealing with a conflict is not to run away, not to punch the other person, but to talk to them. Aristotle referred to this idea as the 'golden mean', where you could find the virtues to guide you into living the good life. Don’t be impulsive or unresponsive, but nicely in-between the two. Don’t be obsequious or rude, but sensibly and self-respectingly friendly. Neither impetuous nor foolhardy, but brave.
The idea seeps into everything in Swedish life. Some (not always unfairly) make fun of this tendency to moderate everything calling it out as something that can discourage greatness (‘Jante’s law’). I’ve heard more than one Swede get annoyed at being told that they’re being ‘too ambitious’ or ‘trying too hard’. That to one side, there are plenty a reasons to think this is a good cultural trait to have.
It leads to great equality, with Nordic countries world leaders in equality as measured in a variety of ways. Before you think that sounds too ‘lefty’ to care about, Wilkonson and Pickett have shown that more equality makes societies feel closer together and better off on a huge range of indicators. (Check out The Spirit Level if you want to know more).
Nordics are much more sensitive to things like poverty and very low salaries, and so even menial jobs are much better paid than elsewhere. If you’re super-rich? That’s fine if you work hard for it, pay your taxes honestly, don’t flaunt your wealth and spend it in a ‘lagom’ and socially responsible way. Even Swedish taxes are lagom, being taxed on capital gains from selling your house, but being paid-back (!) the same amount for any losses you make (just to smooth it out and make everything more lagom).
There’s also good reasons for believing that a more balanced level of stress in life, less willingness to oscillate between extreme moods, less fear of losing all your income. Paying a token amount towards your medicines and childcare, but not too much to make an impact on your disposable income.
Lagom when you become a parent
Having kids? It might cost you between 10% and 20% of your salary to look after your new arrivals for the first year (with at least 80% covered under Parental Leave), but let’s not be crazy and cut it further and even (like in the US) take away your job. No no, that’s not lagom. Pay a bit but not too much.
Should we be extreme and ask dad to only focus on work and mum only on the home? No, let’s find a more lagom balance so that mum and dad share the responsibilities and benefits better.
Should I work late 6 days a week when the kid is old enough so I can make more money for my family? Or should I instead give up my job, my career (and it’s income) so that I can spend all my time with my toddler/kid? No, that’s not lagom. How about we find a balance between work and family so that we can get a moderate lagom in both?
Showing the flip-side – things aren’t black and white
But it also gives you other perspectives. They wont notice they’re doing it (and at first it’s quite annoying) but if you say something like ‘this is the worst time to move to Stockholm’, many Swedes will give you an upside to counter-balance your negative. So something I heard every day when we arrived ‘yes, but it will only get better from now on and the Spring will seem great’.
And they do it the other way too! ‘I managed to get that job!’, ‘that’s great! Hope you’ll be able to cope with that hour and a half commute through the countryside. That might become taxing’… Little Bear’s grandma: opens fridge and half of her Tupperware falls out. Oh. ‘What luck that they all fell out facing up’. Me: ‘how is your food falling out lucky?’
It’s as if there’s an instinct in Swedes that spots an extreme and tries to show the flip-side, to draw you making towards the sensible and measured ‘lagom’ understanding of the situation. It draws you away from the extremes and either makes you see the upside or prepares you for later when things get tough.
Raising kids with lagom
I’ve noticed that lagom seeps into how parents raise their kids. The parenting ideal for a Swedish parent is also ‘lagom’, showing your kids a calm and measured response to everything. Having just the right amount of time on the swing so the next kid in the queue can have their turn (it still surprises me how well 2 and 3 year olds stick patiently to queues and get off the swing VOLUNTARILY when their time is up).
Swedish parents rarely shout at their kids (or at least do so significantly less than I was use to in the UK). While often perplexed with how to discipline their kids, Swedish parents will always try to talk and reason with their kids. Their parenting ideal will be to draw their kids in line with the rules through quietly talking to them.
Even volume is ‘lagom’. In the open pre-schools Little Bear and I have frequented, the volume of the kids and the parents is significantly lower than we’re use to. It’s not whispering, but just talking at a ‘normal’ volume.
Little Bear and I are still trying to adapt to this, with him frequently drawing the attention of everyone in the vicinity by loudly explaining that I probably need to wee now, and my awkwardly trying to ask where the toilet is before realising my volume is about twice as many decibels as the person I’m asking.
I was also told as a kid that I could do anything I wanted to. This was fine at school, but became really difficult at university and then at work, when others no longer saw me as amazing. Things stopped coming so easily. After a while, I realised that actually I wasn’t that amazing, and that things weren’t just falling into my lap as easy as pie like I thought they would. This led to disappointment, and a few existential dilemmas. Not great for my stress or happiness.
A more ‘lagom’ approach to raising kids would be to praise them for their efforts, and teach them a lesson that a lot of English-speaking parents will struggle with digesting: it’s ok to fail, and you aren’t going to get absolutely everything you want in life. Teaching kids to look after their happiness instead of what they finally achieve in the world is one of the big gifts we can give them.
I’m trying to change my instincts of how I talk to Little Bear to do this, praising him for his efforts and good actions rather than the outcomes. But I see it come a lot more naturally to a lot of Swedish parents and pre-school staff.
I think lagom has seeped into parenting, and it might just be giving Nordic kids a more realistic understanding of the world they are growing up into, and a much better control over their happiness. You don’t need to be the very best at something to be happy, you need to enjoy what you’re doing. Let’s hope ‘lagom’ spreads a lot further than the borders of Scandinavia.
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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