Weekend fishing trips, cycling through forests — Scandinavian family life looks so easy. So what’s the secret?
Any parent not living as a hermit for the past year will know that Chinese mothers are tigers and French children don’t throw their food. But the latest international parenting trend comes from Scandinavia — currently, it seems, the global cultural trendsetter.
A large proportion of Britain’s TV viewers have spent the past year or two worshipping rain-lashed Swedish landscapes (as seen inWallander), Danish lighting (as seen in Borgen) and Faroe Islands knitwear (as seen in The Killing), so it was probably only a matter of time before we wanted to know how they brought up their children so beautifully.
Dozens of Swedish mummy blogs have sprung up in the past few months, offering an aspirational window into life as a Scandinavian parent. Babies sleep outside cafés in their Brio buggies while their parents relax with a coffee. British middle-class homes have already adopted Swedish and Danish children’s furniture and kit — the Stokke Tripp Trapp highchair is a kitchen essential — and in fashionable parts of London, children walk around wearing Hummel hightops and carrying Blafre lunch boxes (both available from the Scandinavian children’s store kidsen.co.uk). A talk on Scandinavian parenting this month at the hip children’s clothes shop Polarn O. Pyret in the Tribeca district of New York was packed out.
“Everyone we meet on our travels abroad is fascinated by our relationship with our children,” says Johanna Karlsson, a university lecturer from Malmö, Sweden. She and her husband, Henrik Pettersson, have produced an appropriately stylish book calledSwedish Dad, featuring 21 fathers pictured with their children. “Lots of people can’t believe fathers here play such a big role in the ordinary life of their children — changing nappies and picking them up from school — not just as ‘fun dad’ at the weekend,” Karlsson says. “That’s because we get 16 months’ parental leave to share at 80 per cent salary, which I think has a real impact on the relationship we have with our child. The interest we’ve had in our project from round the world has been phenomenal.”
As with many aspects of life in Scandinavia, parenting is measured: you don’t hear parents shouting at children, smacking is illegal but firm limits are — quietly — set. Children are expected to fit in with the family, not the other way around, and a high proportion of time is spent outside — whether napping in a pram or playing — in all weathers. The Duchess of Cornwall witnessed this first hand last week when she visited a forest school in Bergen, Norway, and watched camp-cooking and wood-whittling in the pouring rain. “Parenting here is really going back to the idea of a very simple childhood that previous generations in Britain had: fathers take their sons fishing and the whole family will go mushroom-picking in the forest,” says Christine Demsteader, a British writer who has lived in Sweden for ten years and has a 15-month-old son, Jack.
Scandinavia regularly tops international quality-of-life polls: Sweden had more first-place positions than any other country in Unicef’s child wellbeing survey (closely followed by Denmark and Finland. The UK was bottom). That success seems to extend into education, too. In the most recent OECD international league tables for reading, Finland was the highest placed European country; all the Nordic nations were in the top 20. We were 25th.
It’s a model British schools would do well to follow, according to John Baumber, chief executive of a charitable trust that runs three schools in Britain on Swedish principles. As with Swedish parenting, these schools aim to develop the child in a caring, nurturing — but quietly firm — environment. There’s a social worker and a family liaison officer based at each British Kunskapsskolan (“Knowledge school” in Swedish) on the basis that if a child has trouble at home, they won’t be ready to learn.
In 2010, Twickenham Academy in southwest London became the first school in the UK to adopt Kunskapsskolan methods. By September this year all 750 pupils will be learning this way. Half of the old Whitton School that it replaced has already been knocked down, and the new building — a monument to Scandinavian style with wooden floors and acres of glass — will open in April next year.
At Kunskapsskolan there are virtually no recognisable classrooms. Instead pupils congregate in the open-plan café on bar stools or in glass booths to work in small groups or on their own. Each week they set academic targets for themselves and are responsible for their own timetable and progress.
Nick Jones, the principal, admits that there was a certain suspicion among parents at first, but he is keen to stress that this is not some 1960s hippy experiment. “This is not a Summerhill free-for-all. Some people interpret it as that, but it is structured and rigorous.”
He was amazed by the maturity and self-possession of Swedish children when he first visited a Kunskapsskolan there in 2005, and believes there’s no reason it can’t be the same here. At its heart is the idea that children take responsibility for their own lives and it’s drummed into them that they are here to make something of themselves; one of the four founding principles is “Life is what you make it”.
One parent was pleasantly surprised when her 12-year-old daughter came home wide-eyed to tell her that you could actually earn more than £600 a week if you had a good education. A group of 12 and 13-year-olds at Twickenham Academy generally know what job they want in later life — and, crucially, what grades they need to get there.
Within a month of arriving at the school aged 11, children sit down with their personal tutor and set the grades they want at GCSE. These are reviewed twice a year. “If they want an A, we say, right, what would it take us to get there from where you are now?” Baumber says.
But aren’t the less motivated ones going to aim low? Not if they understand why they are here, Jones says. “Lots of people say kids of that age can’t set their own goals, but they can — and they tend to aim very high. In many traditional schools you are being told what to do all the time and you can lose a sense of purpose — it’s very passive. This way you take responsibility.”
A child’s personal tutor will stay with them throughout their school career, and meets them once a week for 15 minutes to set goals for the following week and chase up unfinished work. Everything is then noted in the pupil’s logbook — which they cart around from class to class — and online where all grades and goals can be seen by parents, pupils and teachers.
Key subjects — maths, English, science, languages and ICT — are taught in 40 incremental steps from the first year to the end of GCSE. When the whole school moves to this system pupils will be taught in step groups, so you might get a Year 7 pupil studying maths with children two years older if they are on the same step.
Jones points to a boy in Year 8 who is still on step 8 in English (most of his classmates are on 11 or 12) but who has already reached 23 in maths. “In a lot of schools, people would see his work in English and label him as a not very bright kid, but here he is not held back by that and is able to shine.”
In English, for example, only one out of four lessons a week is taught using traditional classroom methods; if the child is working well and on target they can do the other three as “workshops”, where they might go to the open-plan space to work with friends in one of the rooms off the main café space or on their own in a glass booth. Teachers are on hand, helping where needed (there’s no staff room either, so the café is a genuine shared space).
“You can see straight away who will do well with this independence,” says Veerle Dekesel, who has taught English at the school for 22 years. “But for others who might struggle a bit more, they can see other people around them coping well and it motivates them.” If they’re not making sufficient progress their earned autonomy will be curtailed and they can be forced to attend more traditional lessons.
It’s too early to see the effect on exam grades, although John Baumber says that Year 8 pupils are making double the progress expected of them, according to national statistics. In Sweden, where there are 33 Kunskapsskolan educating 10,000 pupils, the average point score on leaving is 245; the national average is 210.
“I knew there must be something in it, because when I was a head in Bolton and we were twinned with a Kunskapsskolan in Sweden, the teachers used to come back from visits and try to turn our school into one,” he says.
“There’s always that moment on a first visit, usually around lunchtime, when you get it — you understand why these children are so articulate and responsive. But there’s no reason why Swedish kids are more composed or mature than British kids: they are the same the world over. What we are doing is giving them responsibility and independence — vital skills in the real world.”
How to be a Nordic parent: the ten golden rules
Parents rule, not children Children are not made the centre of the family; they have to fit in. “Children are clearly cherished but they do not rule the roost,” noted the American psychiatrist and author Barbara Almond after a visit to Sweden and Norway. “I saw little crying and no tantrums. This is not to say that they don’t exist but the attitude of the parents seemed very matter of fact, while being limit-setting.”
Conform at all times There’s an agreed way of doing things, and most people fall in with it; every mother is expected to breastfeed, and almost all do, for example. “It’s very Swedish to keep your head down, stay quiet and do what everyone else does,” Demsteader says.
Play outside “It’s a general perception here that children feel good with fresh air and physical activity — even when it is cold and dark, which it is for more than half the year,” says Elisabeth Dunker, a designer and mother of two from Gothenburg (finelittleday.com). “Not many parents would put up with children staying in on a sunny day: if it’s sunny you play out — period.” Forest schools, which began in Denmark in the 1950s, are popular: children are outside for most of the day, even in winter.
Embrace the simple life Families will generally spend their weekends fishing, walking or having a picnic in the forest; spending hours on a computer game would be frowned upon. Parents are encouraged to relax and enjoy spending time with their children, thanks to generous maternity and paternity packages. In Denmark and Norway, many parents take a paid year off between them. Sweden offers a 16-month paternity/maternity leave; there’s even a word, fika, to describe the act of chatting over coffee and cake. And a father on paternity leave is known affectionately as a lattepappa.
Dagis is king Almost all mothers work. In Norway, a child is entitled to a heavily subsidised place in barnehager (daycare) as soon as they’re one year old. By the age of 12 to 18 months, more than 82 per cent of Swedish children are in dagis (daycare); a full-time place costs just £140 a month. In Denmark, families pay no more than 25 per cent of the cost of nursery. Employers are flexible and generally happy to allow parents to leave early to pick up children from school.
Babies sleep better outside It is common, particularly in Denmark, to see rows of prams containing sleeping babies outside coffee shops, even in winter. (A Danish mother in New York was arrested when she tried it.) Every baby has a dune, a mound of quilting under which they sleep.
Don’t teach reading till 7 Although they don’t learn to read until about seven, Scandinavian children are more enthusiastic readers than British children when they reach secondary school age. Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking series is probably the best loved, and a favourite among Swedish children aged 9 to 11 is Ronia, The Robber’s Daughter (OUP, £6.99). British parents mightalso want to try the award-winning Ulf Stark and his school series about Ulf and Percy (for 8 to 12-year-olds). For younger ones, Finnish writer Tove Jansson’s surreal but innocent tales of the Moomintrolls were recently reissued. And of course, Lauren Child based her character Lola on an inquisitive Danish girl she met on a train, and has admitted she sees Charlie and Lola as Danish children.
Buy Lego Denmark is the home of Lego (which comes from the Danish phrase Leg godt, meaning “play well”) and there is hardly a family without a sizeable collection. Psychologists say that construction play is excellent for the development of logic and spatial awareness and has been linked to later achievements in maths and science.
Be open about sex Nordic countries are famously sexually liberated; sex education in Denmark and Sweden starts with the basics for children aged 6 to 7, and lessons about contraception are compulsory for 15-year-olds. In Finland, 15-year-olds get an introductory sexual package that includes a condom. Despite this — supporters would say because of it — Scandinavian countries (and the Netherlands) have the lowest teen pregnancy rates in the world. Teens have fewer partners and become sexually active at a slightly later age than in the UK.