How family-friendly Sweden opens up art and culture to all ages

Sweden's family-friendly approach makes it easy to enjoy culture and history while still keeping the kids engaged, writes Victoria Martínez in her monthly family column on The Local.

How family-friendly Sweden opens up art and culture to all ages
A picnic outside a Swedish castle. Photo: Victoria Martinez

There was a time when I thought that the incredibly diverse and enriching range of cultural, historical, intellectual, and physical experiences my parents provided me as a child had set the bar quite high. Perhaps so high that I would struggle as a parent to reach it. I also worried the traditionally non-kid-friendly cultural and historical activities my husband and I enjoyed so much would be off-limits to us until our children were older.

That was before we moved to Sweden.

It's not just that there is an incredible variety of kid-centered activities in this country. It's that places where kids would typically be bored to tears or where other adults might want to strangle parents who bring children are incredibly kid-friendly. I'm talking about art museums, outdoor museums, nature reserves, historical sites like castles, palaces and churches, and even coffee shops.

Although I freely admit that we are the kind of parents who would probably take our kids to these places anyway, it is a blessing for ourselves and everyone else that they almost always have something to keep the children occupied and happy. When we're not stressed about keeping our children on their best behavior, we can also relax and enjoy ourselves. People around us may not realize it, but this fleeting state of family harmony benefits them, too (something they would discover if it suddenly went the opposite way). Everyone wins!

Our slightly obsessive interest in visiting as many of the plethora of historic churches in Småland, for instance, has been facilitated by the fact that they all have a kids’ play area and/or are located next to or nearby a playground. Afterwards, we can stop for fika at a coffee shop while the kids entertain themselves in what is often a well-appointed play area. Meanwhile, nobody bats an eyelash.

As we were planning our summer holiday activities, we had read about places being kid-friendly. In all cases, what we encountered went far beyond our expectations. They were so kid-friendly, in fact, that I don’t know who was more excited – the kids or my husband and me. From mock sword-fighting and jousting in a castle courtyard to wardrobes full of historical costumes to wear at will. Where were these activities when I was growing up?

Even the hotels we stayed in had play areas for the kids, usually placed conveniently close to sofas for the adults to relax and enjoy a drink from the hotel bar. When I was a kid and my parents wanted to enjoy a drink, I had to nurse a Shirley Temple kids' cocktail and remain on my best behavior while amusing myself with nothing more than a miniature paper umbrella and an orange rind.

Any fears I might have had that the fun would end with the summer was eliminated when we made our first trip as a family to a Swedish art museum. Entering through the gift shop, I found myself in the unusual situation of being able to leisurely browse the books while my husband oversaw our children as they played with the toys and puzzles set out for that purpose. And guess what? We never had to worry about the children playing with things they weren't supposed to be playing with.

A pint-sized suit of armour at a Swedish castle. Photo: Victoria Martinez

Inside the museum itself, we were all able to play. Old telephones, typewriters and games kept us all busy – the children figuring out what on earth these strange devices were, and my husband and I reliving our own childhoods. It wasn't until we entered an exhibit of fine art that I even had to loud-whisper the phrase echoed down through generations of parents: “NO TOUCHING”, But then at the end of each exhibit was a play area for the kids. This rotation served us well for an entire afternoon and we all left feeling satisfied and happy.

Have I mentioned the playgrounds in Sweden? I realized recently that our 3-year-old son says, “That's awesome!” a lot. I suspect it's because of all the times I have said just that when we've discovered a new playground. And there really are some truly awesome playgrounds in Sweden. So awesome, in fact, that whenever decently possible, I take up my kids' invitations of, “Come on, Mommy. You try it!”. Don't mind if I do.

An impressive playground in Sweden. Photo: Victoria Martinez

These are not the rusty metal jungle gyms slapped onto concrete or hard dirt surfaces that populated my childhood. They are not even the undoubtedly cool plasticized modern chutes and ladders-type you can find so easily everywhere. I'm talking about full obstacle courses, seriously long tube slides, miniature villages, pedal car racecourses, and trampolines of every size, shape and bounciness level, just to name a few. If I didn't already have children, I think I would readily offer to babysit some just so I could have a reason to go to playgrounds like these.

I only have one worry. How are my children going to top this with their kids one day?

Victoria Martínez is an American historical researcher, writer and author of three historical non-fiction books. She lives in Småland county, Sweden, with her Spanish husband and their two children.

Read more from her family column on The Local here.

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Three things not to do as a foreign parent bringing up kids in Sweden

Are you raising children in Sweden? Here are a few very personal tips for what not to do from Alex Rodallec, who was raised in Sweden by a French Breton mother.

Three things not to do as a foreign parent bringing up kids in Sweden

Raising children is hard enough as it is without having to do it in another country. The added difficulties of being a foreigner can be taxing: grappling with the language, the cultural differences, not being well acquainted with how the system works.

So how do you get advice from someone who knows a bit about the issues your child might face growing up as the child of an immigrant in Sweden? One way is to ask someone who was raised by an immigrant parent in Sweden.  Someone like me.

I am no expert in child rearing, and have no children of my own. I can, however, tell you a few things that you should try to avoid. Here are a few of my best tips for what not to do.

Do not reject your adopted country’s culture

This does not mean that you should assimilate completely. It is, however, a good idea to try to embrace your adopted country’s culture as a positive, rather than a negative, for the sake of your children.

Why? Because your children will not have your cultural identity, at least not entirely. And this will be true no matter what you do to prevent it. They will in part become Swedish, imbued with many of the values and customs of Swedish society, with the behaviour and norms.

This might not sound so serious, but if you are someone who is resentful of Sweden, or if you ever become resentful of it, it might become a serious problem.

My mother, who was French, first came to Sweden as a tourist and then later to work, but with no plans of staying. Then she met my father, a Bolivian man, whom she would eventually divorce when I was around two years old. After that my mother went to live in France with my big sister and me, and with the intention of staying.

The next part I am not so sure about, but I believe my father might have threatened legal action if she did not return with us to Sweden. Whatever the reason for her involuntary return, I do know that my mother’s dislike of Sweden grew with her resentment of having to stay there. And sad as that may be, because of our Swedishness she eventually began seeing us children – though only intermittently – as physical manifestations of the country she hated. Or perhaps we were a constant reminder of the fact that she could not leave. Why could she not leave? Because she loved us. How complicated the twists and turns of life sometimes play out.

Growing up, my mother would often tell us that it was our fault that she was “stuck in this country”, and her most common use of the word ‘Swedish’ was as a profanity directed at us, her children. Naturally this created a dissociation with Sweden and Swedishness, primarily in myself and my big sister, and to a lesser degree in my little sister.

And even though my mother had put my big sister and I in private schools with other children of immigrants (The Catholic and English Schools in Gothenburg), coupled with the fact that we went to preschool in France, we had still committed the cardinal sin of absorbing ‘Swedishness’. My little sister had it the worst when it came to this. She went to a Swedish public school, and never had the experience of going to preschool in France, and so was the most ‘Swedish’ of us all.

To this day, the subject of Swedishness and the like or dislike of Sweden is still a topic of conversation whenever I talk to or meet my sisters. My little sister has accepted her Swedishness, and lives in Gothenburg where we grew up. But my big sister and I both live abroad, and to varying degrees have issues with the country we grew up in. I am slowly learning to love and accept my Swedishness while living in France, but my big sister lives in London and baulks at the thought of ever moving back to Sweden. We are a separated family, in part due to our varying degrees of acceptance of Swedishness.

Perhaps I should stress that my mother was not a horrible person, but she suffered greatly from the circumstances of her life.

So, do not fill your children with your resentment of the country they will grow up in, it may very well be detrimental to their well being and their integration into the society they grew up in.

Do not ignore the complexity of cultural identity

Even though cultural identity can become symbolic of underlying issues, as was the case with my mother, it can also be a great resource, albeit one that might need some help along the way.

Being half French, half Bolivian, born and raised in a Swedish multiethnic suburb, had me untangling the threads that make up my cultural identity for decades. An experience common among multi-ethnic children. Your children might eventually need your support in this, I know I could have used some help.

My advice is to promote the idea that one can be many things all at once. And that to a certain degree these things are contextual. I myself am Bolivian to a greater degree when I spend time with the Bolivian side of the family, and more French when I spend time with the French side.

Having multiple cultural backgrounds also has benefits. Your reference points are multiplied compared to someone who has only one cultural background. You can act as a sort of cultural bridge, much like Commander Spock in Star Trek, for the Trekkies out there. Beyond that, having multiple languages is an asset, children who grow up speaking multiple languages struggle a bit at first, but then tend to outdo their peers in language mastery.

Do not be intimidated by how well your children adapt to Swedish society

This one might be slightly odd, but is an experience that many of my friends of immigrant background have shared with me.

Because your children will grow up as cultural insiders they will master the ins and outs of Swedish society much better than you. Most parents want their children to outdo them, but a parent also wants to feel useful and capable in front of their children. You might have a hard time coping with the fact that your children at a certain point, and perhaps much quicker than they would if you were in your home country, will outdo you. On top of that, in many cultures there is also a more authoritarian parent role, where children ought to know their place as children, and let the parent lead and decide.

My advice is: if you have an issue with your children making you feel inadequate, try to think of yourselves as a family unit. If your children can help you do better, that is good for all of you, try to embrace that. And why not look at it as a great opportunity to learn?

What are your best tips for parents raising children in Sweden? Share your experiences of parenting in Sweden with The Local by emailing us at [email protected]