Outsourcing parenting in Sweden

Is the Nordic country really a model for good family policy?
Jonas Himmelstrand | 13 May 2011
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While preparing for a trip to Canada, I have learned that many Canadians consider my country, Sweden, to be a model for good family policy. After all, Sweden has a universally accessible, government-funded daycare system, and a 2006 study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development ranked Sweden at the top and Canada at the bottom in childcare provision. Indeed, Swedish family policies are internationally admired, offering comprehensive and affordable daycare, gender equality and a high percentage of women in paid work. This, however, is only one half of the story. 

True, parental leave in Sweden is a generous 16 months. There are no babies in daycare. But when parental leave ends, practically the reverse is true: A full 92% of all children aged 18 months to five years are in daycare. Parents pay only a symbolic amount for this; tax subsidies for daycare are $20,000 per child, annually. Swedish taxes are among the highest in the world, and the tax system was designed to make both parents seek employment in the work force.

Studies show that most Swedes also want the option of a home-care allowance for the first three to four years of their child's life. The winning centre-right coalition in the 2006 Swedish national election made this promise. After the election, however, political compromises resulted in an allowance which was small, difficult to use and was not mandatory -local governments could decide whether or not to offer it. Only a third of Swedish municipalities chose to do so.

Then there are the questions about the social toll Sweden's childcare system is taking. Sweden has offered a comprehensive daycare system since 1975; since the early '90s, negative outcomes for children and adolescents are on the rise in areas of health and behaviour. While direct causation has been difficult to prove, many Swedish health-care professionals point to the lack of parent involvement beyond the first 16 months as a primary contributing factor. Psychosomatic disorders and mild psychological problems are escalating among Swedish youth at a faster rate than in any of 11 comparable European countries. Such disorders have tripled among girls over the last 25 years. Education outcomes in Swedish schools have fallen from the top position 30 years ago, to merely average amongst OECD nations today. Behaviour problems in Swedish classrooms are among the worst in Europe.

This isn't surprising. After a generation of inexperience, Swedish parenting abilities are deteriorating. A study sponsored by the European Union showed many middleclass parents lack the ability to set limits and sense their children's needs.

Recently, Swedish public service radio investigated the state of Swedish daycares. Parents, psychologists and daycare staff expressed deep concern. In spite of high funding levels, group size and the child-to-adult ratio continue to increase. An experienced pre-school teacher recalls that in 1980 the group size for small children was 10 kids with four adults. For older children, that ratio was five kids per adult. But after the Swedish financial crisis 20 years ago, this changed. Today younger children face ratios of up to 17 kids to three adults and older children face ratios of up to 10 to one. Staff on sick leave are not replaced. "We can't give quality care today," one teacher reported. Only one person interviewed contended that Swedish daycare is still top quality -the Swedish Deputy Minister of Education, Nyamko Sabuni.

These problems are not caused by poverty or social distress. Sweden is materially rich, wealth is evenly distributed, child poverty is low, health care is practically free for all, social security is strong, life expectancy is high, infant mortality is the lowest in the world and Sweden has enjoyed peace since 1809. Instead these troubles run parallel with family policies that don't allow parents sufficient time, energy and opportunity to build close and healthy relationships with their children.

Making childrearing a state responsibility has not proven to be a success. Put simply, parents are willing to sacrifice more for their children than any government where childcare is just one budgetary item among many. Canadians should carefully consider all of the available facts before looking to Sweden as a model for childcare.

* The above article was published in the National Post prior to Mr Himmelstrand’s presentation on Swedish family policy at a conference hosted by the Institute of Marriage and the Family, Canada, on May 5. MercatorNet subsequently asked the author some questions about the relationship between government policies and the decline of marriage in Sweden.

A recent OECD report shows that more than 50 per cent of children are born to unmarried parents in Sweden. Is cohabitation still growing at the expense of marriage in your country?

The latest figures show that, among children aged 0-17 years living at home, 56 per cent have married parents, 23 per cent cohabiting parents, 15 per cent single mothers and 3 per cent single fathers. Marriage is actually becoming increasingly popular, but in secular Sweden this may not have the same implications as elsewhere. Some couples have their own interpretation of the marriage wows, and divorce is easy.

[Editors note: Research by Professor Brad Wilcox and others in the US shows that religious practice is a strong predictor of marital quality and stability.]

Cohabiting relationships are proving to be more unstable than marriage in other countries. Is this the case in Sweden?

Among children 0-17 years of age living at home, the parental separation rate per 100 is 2.48 for married parents and 4.76 for cohabiting parents. So, yes, cohabiting relationships result in nearly twice as many separations. The numbers are almost the same for all years from 2005 to 2008.

To what extent does the breakdown of the family in Sweden explain the large role played by the state in childcare?

My sense would be that the causal direction is the opposite: the state taking more responsibility for the children has made marriages less stable. It seems to me that the comprehensive daycare scheme is the driving force in family developments in Sweden. Without strong child-parent attachments the family institution will develop differently than where these relationships are strong. My sense is that home care families in Sweden form stronger marriages than day care families, although I don't have the figures to prove it.

Jonas Himmelstrand is an author and founder of The Mireja Institute (Mireja.org).

Copyright © Jonas Himmelstrand . Published by MercatorNet.com. You may download and print extracts from this article for your own personal and non-commercial use only. Contact us if you wish to discuss republication.

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