Stockholm University sheds new light on family life

Researchers at Stockholm University have used the data tied to Swedish personal numbers to answer complicated questions about family dynamics and other population processes.

Stockholm University sheds new light on family life
Photo: Kristin Lidell/

The ten-digit Swedish personnummer is the Swedish national identification number assigned to a person when they register as part of the population with the Swedish Tax Agency (Skatteverket) — whether that’s at birth or after relocating to Sweden for an extended period of time. When it was introduced in 1947 it was probably the first of its kind covering the total resident population of a country.

It also presents unique research possibilities. Unlike other countries with similar systems — such as the US social security number — Swedes provide their personal numbers for pretty much everything. From starting school to income information, they’re a big part of everyday life and can reveal a lot about the population.

The number is used by public authorities, in the healthcare system, schools, and universities (both public-run and private). The personal number is also used by banks for tax purposes and mandatory customer identification, and by insurance companies for car liability insurance and for medical travel insurance coordination.

Not 'big brother'

Other companies often ask for someone’s personal number in conjunction with pre-paid services, like a telephone subscription, to check the person's credit records.

With selected administrative data at their disposal, it’s no surprise researchers at Stockholm University have used it to answer complex questions in more detail than ever before.

Read more about research programmes at Stockholm University

But don’t worry, it’s not as “big brother” as it sounds. Researchers don’t have access to the actual personal numbers – only an anonymized key.

Nor is the data that’s available to them through the government administrative registers of the sensitive kind. It just means researchers can look at which factors may produce different outcomes for people with different backgrounds when it comes to education levels or receiving government benefits, for example.

Most recently, the university has published three separate studies exploring topics concerning family dynamics.

Does sibling spacing matter?

The first example of recent research, a study conducted by Kieron Barclay and Martin Kolk of Stockholm University’s Department of Sociology, considers whether spacing between births has any impact on long-term cognitive, educational, and socioeconomic outcomes.

It was previously believed that a short birth interval (in layman’s terms, a woman becoming pregnant again shortly after giving birth) might have negative effects on both children.

This was in part because the mother may not have had time to physically recover from the first birth, resulting in issues like low birth weight. Another concern was that neither child would get the full attention required in their formative years. However, Barclay and Kolk have used register data to show that this isn’t the case.

Photo: Simon Paulin/

“In our new study, we find – in contrast to previous research – that birth spacing does not matter for how long people spend in education, how their cognitive ability develops, or how they perform in the labour market”, the pair write on Socio(b)log.

The researchers followed individuals born between 1960 and 1990 from birth through education and into the labour market. They looked at factors including high school grade point average, IQ, number of years spent in education by age 30, and government welfare support received by age 30.

They found that birth spacing has no effect for long-term outcomes in Sweden, and suggested previous negative outcomes observed in relation to short birth spacing could be a result of other existing health and socioeconomic disadvantages.

The researchers note as well, however, that since Sweden is a highly developed country, with excellent healthcare and a good standard of living, the effects of birth spacing may be more pronounced in less developed countries.

Identifying with one's homeland

A second Stockholm University study sheds light on another timely topic: whether young Swedes with a foreign background are able to culturally identify with both their parents’ homeland and Sweden.

To gather the data, researchers conducted surveys within the target groups and combined the results with population register information like area of residence and school performance.

Learn more about studying at Stockholm University

Researchers focused on Iranian and former Yugoslavian youths, two target groups that are sizeable enough to represent a range of possible experiences. They found there was no conflict between identifying with both their parents’ homeland and Sweden. In fact, quite the opposite.

“Actually, there’s somewhat of a tendency that the more strongly you identify with your parents’ homeland, the stronger identification you have with Sweden,” explain Jens Rydgren, Stockholm University Professor of Sociology of and co-author of the study.

Single parents and stability for kids

A final study looks at whether children who are living full-time with a single parent are more or less likely to feel stress several times a week than if their parents share physical custody. It was previously thought that this living situation may create an unstable and stressful environment for children.

“Those who pointed to it earlier have built their concerns on theoretical assumptions, rather than empirical research,” says Jani Turunen of the Demography Unit at Stockholm University’s Department of Sociology and author of the study.

Pursue a Master's in Demography at Stockholm University

Turunen gleaned his insights by combining data from the Surveys of Living Conditions in Sweden from 2001-2003 with population registry data. He found that children who live full-time with one parent are more likely to feel stressed than children who live in joint custody situations.

“In other words, living with both parents does not mean instability for the children,” he explains.

Turunen explains the findings may be due to the fact that children who spend a lot of time away from one parent lose resources such as relatives, friends, and money connected to the other parent. Children sharing residence, on the other hand, can maintain a stronger relationship to both parents compared to those who see one of them on weekends or less frequently. Previous research has shown children may also worry more about the parent they don’t see regularly, which can be the cause of further stress.

The new study indicates that contrary to the opinion that shared physical custody is undesirable, it actually results in less overall stress for the child.

“It's just an adaptation to another housing situation, where regular relocation and good contact with both parents equals to stability,” he says.

Click here to find out more about Stockholm University

This article was produced by The Local Client Studio and sponsored by Stockholm University.


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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]