Sweden: paradise for parents?

You could be forgiven for believing that Sweden is universally viewed as a child-rearing Nirvana. Exceptional child care provision and eighteen months of paid parental leave have had parents (and many social commentators) from around the world looking to see why Swedes have it so good.

The Swedish model has attracted particular attention in Britain, which has sent over government ministers to see whether they could learn anything from their counterparts across the North Sea. Indeed, many left-leaning commentators have been urging them to pay attention, with The Guardian newspaper’s Polly Toynbee comparing a visit to Sweden to “time-travel to the future.”

But childcare in Sweden really such a fleece-lined, three-wheeled stroller-pushing walk in the park – for the children and the parents?

It is easy to see why social democrats, feminists and many parents are keen on the Swedish parenting model: Swedish parents are entitled by law to 480 days off work when they have a baby. This must be shared between both parents and they have to take at least 60 days each. They get 180 kronor per day, paid by the state, for the first 390 days regardless of who stays at home, and a flat rate of 60 kronor per day for the remaining 90 days of their leave.

The contrast with the UK is marked. Mothers in Britain get just 182 days off. There’s a flat rate of £15 (just over 200 kronor) per day, paid by the state, for 26 weeks after giving birth. Mothers who have been in permanent jobs for a certain period before their children are born receive 90 percent of their salaries from their employers for the first six weeks of maternity leave.

As for fathers – in the UK they are very much an afterthought. British dads get 14 days off, all at the same flat rate of £15 per day. Both can apply for ‘extended leave’, but it depends on their individual employment contract. There is often a strong social pressure to return to work in the UK.

For many Swedish-British couples, the perks of the welfare state and the greater importance placed on the father’s role mean that Sweden is the natural place to bring up their families.

Englishman Andy lives with his Swedish partner Anna-Lena in Uppsala. He says that there is a “stigma” attached to the British father figure:

“Dads in Sweden aren’t expected to have a social life away from the family, like going to the pub to watch football. I meet a lot of fathers here who feel they get the balance they need in life anyway. ”

Ditte, a Swede, and her Irish husband Pete, moved back to Sweden from London a year ago, partly persuaded by the generous parental leave provisions.

“You can’t even compare the two countries when it comes to both maternity leave and paternity-leave. You get much more time off in Sweden and you can share the time between you as you wish. Meanwhile you also have the right to work on a 75 per cent basis”, says Ditte.

But while praise for Sweden’s parental leave is widespread, there are cultural problems for many trans-national couples that make the country a less attractive place to live with children. Sweden’s famously informal approach to discipline (it was one of the first countries to ban corporal punishment, for instance), is a downside for some.

“I’ve heard about Swedish children who threaten to contact authorities because they’re told off. Children must have respect for their parents and teachers,” says Malin, a Swede with an Irish husband who has lived in the UK for 15 years.

Pete believes parents should be allowed to be stricter than some Swedish parents might accept.

“I don’t think it’s bad for children to have boundaries”, he comments.

But like most matters of discipline, there are two ways of looking at the issue, and even many non-Swedes take easily to the relaxed Swedish approach to discipline:

“It depends on your child – I don’t feel the need to be strict”, says Andy.

The approach of Swedish schools to rules and punishment closely mirrors the approach of Swedish parents.

“Swedish schools encourage the children to take responsibility and be creative in a different way. Academically maybe the UK is slightly better, but in the long run Sweden wins,” says Ditte.

This more free and easy approach descends down pre-school age too.

“Nursery care is more structured in the UK while it’s ‘freer’ in Sweden, which means each child’s individual interest is looked after. There are more outdoor activities as well,” explains Ditte.

But while schools, hospitals, and government-funded parental leave grab all the headlines, it is other, less definable factors that really make the difference for parents and children.

“I could have had all the maternity leave and all the Swedish benefits by transferring back to Stockholm,” explained Malin, “but we want our son to grow up with the diversity that England, and in particularly London, can offer.”

Picture on homepage: Susanna Blåvarg; Copyright: Johnér; imagebank.sweden.se