Have Sweden’s permissive parents given birth to a generation of monsters?
My five-year-old is extravagantly furious at being thwarted. I have infringed her human rights by mildly suggesting that she turn off the television and put some clothes on.
I can see the dark storm clouds gathering on her thunderous brow, her eyes narrowing, mouth pursed in Shakespearean displeasure as she reaches for the most hurtful, serpent’s tooth ingratitude she can think of. “You’re Not My Friend Any More!”
To which I reply, swift as Lady Macbeth’s dagger, “I never was your friend in the first place, darling. Friends don’t wash your socks or buy you a warm winter coat or make you brush your teeth so they don’t rot in your head.
“Now, please get dressed or I will call the school and they will send the police round to arrest all your Sylvanians and deport them.”
Tough love, maybe. But love none the less. And, without wishing to seem smug (it’s merely a happy by‑product), mine is an old-fashioned, British brand of child‑rearing that could soon be coming back in vogue in Scandinavia, of all places.
Yes, those very countries that once prided themselves on their enlightened, child-centred parenting style are, it seems, having second thoughts about the wisdom of letting their offspring do what they want, whenever they want.
A best-selling Swedish academic has concluded that permissive parenting is creating a generation of arrogant young adults who lack social empathy, personal resilience and, after a childhood of pampering, are destined to be bitterly disappointed in life.
“Saying ‘no’ to a child is not the same as beating a child. Parents should act like parents, not best friends,” says David Eberhard, psychiatrist, father of six and author of How Children Took Power. “They should prepare their kids for adult life by teaching them how to behave, not treat them like princes or princesses. In Sweden, they think that any form of intervention against the child is a sort of molesting.
“The so-called experts think that parents should negotiate, rather than punish. They have misunderstood the concept of parenting. Children are not as fragile as they think.”
Eberhard, 47, points to a breakdown of discipline in schools, plummeting grades and a worrying rise in attempted suicides among teenagers as evidence that allowing children to be boss has failed.
Sweden was the first country on the planet to introduce a ban on physical punishment in 1979. Thereafter, the view was taken that hierarchy within families ought to be jettisoned in favour of treating children like adults.
But while the egalitarian values of social democracy might work for the economy, they have been a disaster on the domestic front.
“What strikes me as the most disturbing feature of Swedish society is the voluntary abdication of adult authority,” says Frank Furedi, Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Kent and author of Paranoid Parenting. “It began with stigmatising the punishment of children and mutated into a fear of disciplining them, which is what parents are supposed to do. The area for concern isn’t what happens to them as children, but what happens to them as they grow up.”
To the outside world it does seem as though Scandinavians have elevated hands-off parenting to a national pastime. There has, historically, been much to admire about the freedoms Scandinavian children enjoy, in that they spend much of their time outdoors, are encouraged to physically explore the great outdoors and push themselves to their limits in winter sports.
They famously don’t begin formal education until they are six or seven, something that is oft-cited by educationalists as preferable to our system, under which all children in England must be in full-time education by their fifth birthday.
In a letter to The Daily Telegraph last September, a group of leading UK educationalists, including Lord Layard, director of the Well-Being Programme at the London School of Economics and David Whitebread, senior lecturer in psychology of education at Cambridge University, claimed the Scandinavian model ought to be emulated.
“Despite the fact that 90 per cent of countries in the world prioritise social and emotional learning and start formal schooling at six or seven, in England we seem grimly determined to cling on to the erroneous belief that starting sooner means better results later,” said Wendy Ellyatt, founder of the Save Childhood Movement campaign, which sent the letter. “There is nothing wrong with seeking high educational standards and accountability, but there is surely something very wrong indeed if this comes at the cost of natural development.”
Yet it would seem that despite the idyllic picture painted, something is rotten in the state of Sweden. Eberhard points to growing social problems in school, where Swedish pupils routinely refuse to follow teachers’ instructions, and later on in what he views as their unfulfilled young adulthood.
“International educational comparisons show there is a huge discrepancy between what they achieve and what they think of themselves,” he says. “Their expectations are too high and life is too hard for them. We see it with anxiety disorders and self-harming, which has risen dramatically.
But who, really, is surprised? As any (non-Swedish) parent will tell you, rational negotiation is all very well with a fellow adult, but no use with a cross, tired toddler in extremis. Similarly, letting pre-teens set their own bedtimes is unfair, and expecting them to be responsible once they hit their teenage years is, frankly, irresponsible.
I know my share of laissez-faire parents who believe that “staying chilled” is the way to keep the lines of communication open with their kids as they negotiate the hazards of secondary school and beyond. But I can’t say I’ve noticed they are any more au fait with what’s going on than the rest of us parents, prissily enforcing our strict(ish) rules and laying out our clear-cut expectations. In fact, I’d go so far as to say they know less and drink more.
I can’t imagine bringing up children without boundaries; what would I enforce? What would they push against?
The very word “boundary” makes me think of hedgerows flourishing with cow parsley and ragged robin and maybe a Cabbage White or two. But in Scandinavia, where boundaries have been abolished, the bare flatlands are bleak as a Nordic-noir crime scene.
“Young people in Sweden tend to be very disappointed in life, especially in their twenties,” observes Eberhard. “While there is a falling rate of suicides, there is a huge rise in suicide attempts, especially among girls aged 15 to 25.”
Cries for help ought to be impossible to ignore; whether Swedish society chooses to heed them is another matter. Still, it would be wrong to pit the extremes of permissive parenting against the equal and opposite extremes of disciplinarian parenting.
Most sane parents muddle along in the middle because rearing children is an art, not a science. I will readily admit that I don’t always get it right. I’m not even sure I mostly get it right, but it doesn’t stop me trying. I may not be my daughters’ friend, but I hope I’m something much more enduring. Firmness and fairness aren’t incompatible with fun: just ask Mary Poppins, Mrs Doubtfire and Nanny McPhee.
We all recognise, too, that parenting is the ultimate roller‑coaster of highs and lows and unexpected soakings, helter-skelters, swings and roundabouts. It’s just that in my house, I make sure everyone knows it’s the adults who have the keys to the funfair.