From its generous parental leave to Ikea’s supervised play areas, Sweden prides itself on family-friendly policies.
So when a Swedish café owner tried to ban children from his property he wasn’t surprised by the number of outraged parents — there were plenty — but by the groundswell of support he received from his guests and colleagues.
“I’m always going to think that everything my daughter does is really cute, but I know that not everyone else feels the same way,” said Josef Shamon, whose family owns Nelly’s, the Stockholm coffee shop and bistro that recently implemented the ban.
Problems included children “standing on the chairs, jumping from them, standing on the shelves by the windows and banging on them,” he added.
One employee asked a mother to tell her son to stop jumping on the couch, only to burn himself with coffee when the young boy came running at him minutes later.
“We have lost a lot of customers over this and it’s a widespread problem in the industry,” Shamon said.
It all began when Nelly’s new owners decided to lift a ban on prams and buggies, a practice Swedish eateries justify by pointing to fire safety regulations, but which is also seen as a ploy to keep the number of latte-sipping parents down.
News of the baby-friendly cafe spread and soon there were around ten prams on the premises at any given moment of the day, and even more children, Shamon claimed.
“Out of those, 90 percent are very good and well-behaved…but around ten percent come here either thinking we will take care of (their kids), or that their behaviour is okay,” he said.
For the moment, Nelly’s has taken down the controversial sign barring children from entering, but Shamon said it was mulling having the ban tried in court, pointing to the growing popularity of child-free holidays and hotels.
Restaurant owners and taxi drivers from around the country had called his family to give their support, he added.
Still, few have done so publicly in a country where many feel children should be seen and heard — including at dinner parties, where relegating young guests to a separate table is considered old-fashioned.
If the number of toddlers at Nelly’s and Espresso House, Sweden’s ubiquitous Starbucks clone, seems unusually high, it can also be explained by the country’s generous parental leave.
The system allows for 480 days at 80 percent of salary to be claimed by either parent until their child turns eight.
Add in the tax cuts enacted by Sweden’s centre-right government and it’s easy to see why young parents are a lucrative market for coffee shop owners.
But if the online outpouring of support for Nelly’s ban is anything to go by, Sweden’s “latte parents”, as they are sometimes disparagingly called, could also cost the proprietors some of their business.
On a popular café review website, one patron said many mothers were now boycotting Nelly’s, but suggested it had made the venue more rather than less popular.
“I sit there often and work and…the place is pure heaven. However, it’s busier than usual,” she wrote.
Child-rearing experts, like the rest of the country, disagreed on how to solve the problem.
“I think bringing your children with you everywhere you go is wrong,” Hugo Lagercrantz, a professor of paediatrics and a commentator on children’s health issues, told AFP.
“If you go to a coffee shop it’s for the parents’ sake, the children don’t find it particularly enjoyable,” he said, noting that Swedish parents have a high tolerance level for bad behaviour.
But calls for stricter parenting were slammed by Lars H. Gustafsson, a paediatrician and father of eight who’s written books such as “Growing, Not Obeying” and “The Preschool Child’s Human Rights”.
“If children are running around in a cafe because they’re bored, other adults can take care of them and talk to them, instead of just sitting there and looking annoyed,” he said.
“After all, it’s a privilege to be able to meet children sometimes.”
Greater visibility of children in public spaces had led to a backlash, borne out by the popularity of reality TV shows teaching parents how to discipline their kids, Gustafsson argued.
“Sometimes as a parent it’s better to leave, so that the children will be spared the glares and negative comments,” he said.
If someone else’s child threw a tantrum in a shop, Gustafsson himself sometimes offered to take the parent’s trolley past the tills so that they could take the child outside.
“I think adults should be more forgiving and help out,” he said.
A spokeswoman for Sweden’s Equality Ombudsman (Diskrimineringsombudsmannen – DO), Susanna Lundmark, said a complaint had to be filed before the agency could judge whether Nelly’s child ban breached the country’s discrimination laws.