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The Nordic parenting myth

Scandinavians are not better parents – but their politicians, unlike Britain’s, understand that childcare is a social good.

By Sophie McBain

Among parenting manuals, one of the most popular and seductive genres is the “Babies Are Better Abroad” book. In these, a hapless first-time mum (or mom) moves from Britain or the US to continental Europe and discovers that while at home her friends’ pasty-faced offspring are whining over their chicken nuggets and chips, French toddlers happily sit down to a four-course lunch without even balking at the stinky-cheese course, and Danish preschoolers trot home, pink-cheeked from a morning of building fires and climbing trees to wolf down hearty portions of rye bread and smoked fish. Over here parenting is a full-time preoccupation; our bedside tables are buckling under the weight of our essential parenting literature, and yet our children are fragile and unhappy and prone to acting out. And yet, we learn, in France and Denmark and the Netherlands people raise happy, well-adjusted kids seemingly effortlessly.

French childhoods are very encadré: children are given freedom within strict boundaries and are taught the importance of patience and self-restraint early, we discover in the 2014 bestseller, French Children Don’t Throw Food, a book title I thought I had hallucinated. In the Netherlands the ethos might be summarised by “doe maar gewoon”, which translates loosely as “you do you” – an invitation to embrace simplicity and imperfection, as we discover in The Happiest Kids in the World, Bringing Up Children the Dutch Way. This is a 2017 book that my mother, who is Dutch, bought for me in a spirit of self-congratulation right after I had my first child. Into this arena steps the British journalist Helen Russell with How to Raise a Viking: The Secrets of Parenting the World’s Happiest Children, a book with a similar message to The Danish Way of Parenting: What the Happiest People in the World Know About Raising Confident, Capable Kids (2016) – are you keeping up? – and one that capitalises on our obsession with all things Scandinavian, from hygge to Nordic noir.

Russell, the author of The Year of Living Danishly and a former women’s magazine editor, has a breezy, conversational style, but smuggles in a lot of research and statistics between the self-deprecation, jokes and musings on such inspired traditions as the Stork Hotel, £32-a-night government-run accommodation with an on-call nurse for new mothers who need some extra help, and the ventepølse, or “waiting sausage”, eaten at the grill while you wait for the main-event sausages to cook. One expert she relies on frequently to translate Danish parenting traditions for a British audience is the food writer Trine Hahnemann. To further assist her assumed readership of frazzled middle-class parents, she concludes each chapter with a bullet-point summary of what she’s learned about Viking-raising (although she has been living in Denmark for the past decade, she writes about the other Nordic countries too).

Danish children do not start formal schooling until they are six, we learn. Until then they go to a heavily subsidised state kindergarten, or børnehave, where they spend large amounts of time outdoors, learning through unstructured play. It is recognised that the most important skills a child can learn are social ones: the ability to make friends and handle conflict, to support one another, to negotiate and find compromises. Risk-taking – climbing trees, tobogganing, playing with knives and fire – is encouraged to promote confidence and resilience. And, as in France, there is an emphasis on setting firm boundaries but otherwise letting children roam free.

Denmark is a nation of volunteers, and parents all muck in to run children’s clubs and activities. Everyone – from administrative assistants to CEOs – clocks off work around 4pm so that they can have dinner with their children, hang out and put them to bed by seven. Russell never hears Danes shouting at their kids; these parents instinctively try to understand the feelings behind bad behaviour. Danes also don’t over-praise or make excuses for their kids or themselves. If you want your child to go to sleep on time, in Denmark you just tell them truthfully that you need them to stay in bed because you want some time to yourself now. Simple! Then again, even the government is willing to help by switching off children’s TV at 8pm every evening.

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Russell’s perspective isn’t entirely uncritical – she thinks, for example, that the Nordic countries might be too permissive with children’s screen time – but a lot gets glossed over. When Russell gives birth, in a hospital staffed by wonderful, highly trained midwives, with private rooms for new mothers and cupboards stocked with anything new families might need, she is strongly discouraged from having an epidural – or, as it’s known in Denmark: “a princess stick”. In her end-of-chapter summary, Russell concludes that “there is no easy way to get a baby out… but that’s OK. We’ll have some impressive new scars, mesh underwear and war stories to share instead.”

 Readers of French Children Don’t Throw Food will know that, actually, there is an easy way. The overwhelming majority of French women have epidurals, and the author describes pushing after her epidural with the “precision and intensity of a yoga move, without the discomfort”. Having twice received a well-timed hit from a princess stick, I can assure you this isn’t hyperbolic. (Having also once gone without, I now believe that no amount of water, candles, self-hypnosis or Tibetan chanting music can match the immediate inner peace delivered via princess stick.) That childbirth can be unpredictable and painful doesn’t seem like a good enough reason to restrict access to the strongest painkillers. Wouldn’t it have been interesting to explore why a country that otherwise takes such good care of new mothers considers their physical discomfort unimportant?

As Russell makes clear, the Nordic countries’ egalitarian politics plays a big role in Viking-raising (but the rise of the far right in recent years is another topic that is glossed over). Citizens indeed pay higher taxes than in the UK, Russell observes, but average salaries are also much higher and more evenly distributed, and people tend to be more community minded and happy to contribute to shared services. While levels of interpersonal trust have plummeted in the UK and US over recent decades, 79 per cent of Danes say they trust most people. It is tempting, as a reader, to focus on the aspects of parenthood over which you have some control. Russell makes a persuasive case for the Nordic parenting style: after reading the book, when my daughters, aged four and six, asked to make themselves sandwiches I gave them sharp knives to cut their cheese and cucumber, health and safety be done. I fantasised about renting a rustic, off-grid summerhouse on a chilly, windswept Danish beach and embracing friluftsliv or “open-air life”. “Back to bed please, I want some time to myself,” I said in a calm, serious voice.

The real lesson we should take from this or any other “Babies Are Better Abroad” book isn’t to do with parenting styles or ethos, but a reminder that only in the UK and US has parenthood become so privatised and atomised as to feel almost impossible. One of the most important things Nordic countries get right is recognising that looking after children is a shared social responsibility. They understand that high-quality universal childcare is both a social good ­– because it reduces inequality – and essential social infrastructure that is as vital to the proper running of a country as roads or internet cables. They have created an environment that’s conducive to giving children freedom and independence because in the Nordic countries it’s still expected that you might keep an eye on someone else’s kids. They view family life as important and valuable, not as something private and inconvenient, a distraction from work.

If American and British parents have become neurotic, if we’re turning to books to try to find answers that ought to be obvious, maybe that’s because it’s easier to be a calm, relaxed parent when you’re not left to figure everything out on your own, when your day-to-day routine doesn’t feel like a guilty dance between a job that demands your all, children to whom you wish you could give more, and the complex patchwork of barely affordable, slightly inadequate childcare we all need to cobble together to get by. Maybe we’d put less pressure on ourselves, and on our children, if we felt confident that even if they aren’t the most academic, or the most talented, or the most driven, they will get by just fine.

It would be great, I thought, if someone could write an ethnographic study of parenting in the UK – Little Bratain, perhaps: The Secrets of Parenting the Unhappiest, Unhealthiest Children in Europe. But they shouldn’t write it for the stressed-out parents, overworked teachers and childcare workers on poverty wages who are trying their absolute best and know all of these “secrets” all too well, but for the policymakers who prefer to remain in the dark.

How to Raise a Viking: The Secrets of Parenting the World’s Happiest Children
Helen Russell
Fourth Estate, 352pp, £16.99

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[See also: How to escape the self-help trap]

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