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Swedish parenting: Back to a traditional future?

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Swedish parenting: Back to a traditional future?
Photo: Göran Assner/Swedish Travel and Tourism Council
14:09 CET+01:00
Four years on from the start of the great “curling” and “helicopter” debates, the issue of parenting is back in the news. This time round, the focus has switched to the unprecedented popularity of state-sponsored parenting classes. Peter Vinthagen Simpson takes a closer look.

In the spring of 2004, Sweden was awash with debate about the growing prevalence of so-called “curling parents”. Drawing an analogy with the sport of curling, the phrase refers to parents who rush ahead of their children, frantically sweeping their path clean of even the most minor obstructions.

The phrase was coined by Danish child psychologist Bent Hougaard in a challenge to the perceived status quo. Parents had become slaves to their children, who ruled the roost, rejecting adult authority in all its forms.

The discourse was joined later by “helicopter parents,” a term describing parents who pay very close attention to their children, hovering around them at all times.

In recent months, parenting in Sweden has again been under the microscope, with some 20,000 parents turning to state-sponsored parenting courses for help last year. But the courses are controversial and experts fear a traditionalist backlash.

Critics argue that the courses signify the return of shaming and the naughty step. Advocates however contend that the courses, which focus on behaviour, work.

Is Sweden, proud of a more “enlightened”, cooperative approach to parenting, losing faith in itself and rediscovering a more “traditional”, hands-on approach to raising its children?

Lars H. Gustafsson, paediatrician and author of several books on children and youth, is critical of the broad application of parenting courses and writes that many of the methods taught in courses such as Komet and Cope are not suitable for the average family. Many of the methods are designed for families with serious problems and could be counterproductive when applied universally, he argues.

“I want to emphasize that I am positive to the idea that parents should meet and discuss parenting, but there should be more of a menu of courses that parents can choose between. It is the content that I react against. There is an important distinction between treatment therapy for families with serious problems and the majority of parents that can manage perfectly well,” says Gustafsson.

Agneta Hellström at Cope, just one of the courses available to parents in Sweden, argues that attitudes have changed over the past thirty years and that state-sponsored courses are not as controversial as they were in the 1970s and 1980s.

“The courses are offered to parents and not imposed upon them. In my experience there has been a professionalization of parenthood. In the same way that the owner of a boat wishes to learn to sail, parents wish to learn to develop in their new roles. The courses are very much part of an 'empowerment programme' and it is the parents and not the course leader who shape the content.”

Gustafsson agrees that the courses are not as controversial and parents are less sceptical towards authorities today. “They should be though,” he warns, adding that “the recent vigorous media debate is perhaps an indication that there remains a healthy scepticism to being told by society how to be a parent.”

He reacts against the behaviour focus of many of the modern courses and would like to see courses focused more on “interplay,” “teamwork” and “parental dialogue.”

“Along the lines of a French language study circle.”

Methods such as “time out” and ignoring the child have been the focus of much of the debate. The “time out” method is argued by Gustafsson to be reminiscent of the “room arrest” that was once common in parenting. “Room arrest” was cited by the government in 1979 as an example of what could be considered a “prohibited violation of the rights of a child” and thus equivalent to the use of corporal punishment and thereby prohibited by the new legislation.

Sweden was the first country in the world to outlaw the corporal punishment of children, in 1979. In fact the right of parents to beat their children was removed in 1966.

Hellström argues that the “time out” method has been misunderstood. The method, she emphasizes, should be used selectively and only to “break a vicious circle,” in extreme cases, such as when the child is hitting another child.

“Time out is part of the 'positive reinforcement' taught in Cope's courses and does not mean room arrest,” Hellström explains.

“It is important that parents remain in control. Time out is a so-called 'sharp tool' - a means of breaking a more negative situation and reinforcing a positive one,” she adds.

It was not until after the end of the Second World War that physical punishment and shaming began to be questioned as methods of parenting in Sweden, Gustafsson writes in 'The return of the naughty step.'

Children's author Astrid Lindgren created the characters of Pippi Longstocking, Emil, Madicken and Ronja and was influential in embedding new attitudes towards children and parenting in the Swedish popular self-identity that led to a re-think in the 1970s and early 1980s.

“I was part of the process to develop parenting courses in the beginning of the 1980s. The thought was that we would develop a three-stage process taking the child up to school age, but financial concerns came in the way. Even then we were careful to avoid the word 'education' and we went for 'parent groups' instead,” Gustafsson tells The Local.

Hellström argues that today's parents are not familiar with the 1970s tradition and seek “concrete, pedagogical methods for improving their daily lives with their children.”

One such “concrete” method is the so-called “balance of trust.” Deposits are made, in the form of praise, gold stars or “quality time” and, later, withdrawals in the form of punishments. Hellström emphasizes that it is important to consider what we mean by punishment.

“If I turn off the TV because it is time for my child to get to bed is that really a punishment? - It doesn't fit the Swedish definition.”

Hellström compares this “balance of trust” to an employment contract that most adults at some point enter into. “Built on an agreement and most importantly, renegotiable”

The National Institute of Public Health (Folkhälsoinstitutet) has developed parenting courses in a Swedish cultural context. Sven Bremberg at the institute explains to The Local that “foreign” methods such as “time out” have been consciously omitted from its new parenting course material which has an emphasis on “warmth and limits.”

The popularity of parental courses could be argued to be a result of a period of introspection by parents prompted by the curling and helicopter debates. So what of the children?

One might ask whether these parenting courses aren't more for the benefit of parents struggling to find a balance to “life's puzzle” in the high-stress, “I want it all” 2000s, than for their children. Children are one more piece of the puzzle needing to be effectively managed; squeezed in alongside a career, a rewarding social life and free-time activities. Hence the focus on controlling behaviour, or perhaps more accurately, output. Gustafsson agrees:

“The definition of normality has narrowed in today's society. That which was once considered normal is now considered to be deviant. Take sleep for example. Small children sleep badly, that's normal, but parents today live with such tight schedules they cannot run the risk of their child having a bad night's sleep.”

“I miss the children's perspective,” he concludes.

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