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Was Sweden right to spare the rod? A new book has attacked the 1979 decision to ban smacking

Philip O’Connor tots up the evidence for and against

With its generous maternity and paternity leave, affordable childcare and child-centric society, Sweden has long been the envy of parents all over the world.  But a new book suggests that being so focused on children may in fact do kids – and Swedish society – more harm than good.

In How The Children Took Power, the author and psychiatrist David Eberhard claims that since Sweden became the first country in the world to ban smacking in 1979, a measure now adopted by more than 30 countries including the UK, parents have also become less willing to discipline their children verbally. Eberhard argues that this has led kids to become the key decision-makers in families, and that parents and kids suffer as a result.

“[Children] decide what is to be watched on TV, what’s for dinner, where to go on holiday. They don’t go to places that parents decide any more – they go somewhere the kids will have a good time,” he says.

On paper at least, Sweden seems a perfect society for children and parents. Since introducing the ban on smacking, Sweden became one of the first countries in the world to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1990. The government’s Early Childhood Education and Care programme forms the cornerstone of family policy, which puts children’s rights high on the national agenda by giving parents the right to take more than two years’ leave when they have children, with fathers encouraged to take an active role in their children’s lives.

Childcare is also heavily subsidised. A full-time preschool place for a child between the ages of one and two in Stockholm costs around £120 per month. According to the Family and Childcare Trust, the average nursery cost for a child under the age of two is £106.38 per week for 25 hours a week.

A recent UN report into child well-being ranked Sweden in fifth place after its Nordic neighbours Iceland, Finland and Norway, with the Netherlands topping the table.

But despite these apparent advantages, Eberhard argues that there has been a downside to the measures, which is evident in the increasing number of anxiety disorders and self-harming cases among young Swedish people. The UN has also pointed to an increase in child obesity.

“We’ve gone from not being physical towards children to not being allowed to say anything to them – it’s not the same thing,” says Eberhard.

“We have this notion that we must over-protect children, because there are so many terrible things that can happen to them. The effect is that is very hard to tell someone who is so fragile what to do. They’ve become like porcelain dolls.

“We don’t have the courage to correct them. That automatically transfers decision-making to the child,” says the father of six.

By encouraging parents to return to work, Eberhard says the seemingly utopian Swedish system has set up a “guilt trap” for parents.

“If you have feelings of guilt, such as, ‘I work too much, I send [the kids] to preschool, people believe that I don’t see my children enough’, you think, ‘I’m going to make sure they have a fantastic time when they’re at home.’

“[Parents] still haven’t the courage to resist the culture, so they go to work despite believing that it damages the children. They then over-compensate by giving the child everything outside of that and letting them decide everything. I believe that damages the child much more than sending them to pre-school does.”

Eberhard’s book has sparked debate among Swedish parents about how much children should be allowed to influence the modern family.

A free parenting course called “All Children in the Centre” offered by local Swedish authorities was set up in 2010 to support parents with young children, and one of its key messages was that punishments and boundaries are not necessarily the right approach to take with kids.

“If you want a child to co-operate the best way is to have a close relationship,” the psychologist Kajsa Lönn-Rhodin, one of the architects of the course, told The Local. She rejects the idea that children have taken over and says a bigger problem is posed by “harsh parenting”.

Rebecka Edgren Alden, editor-in-chief of Mama, a Swedish parenting magazine, said she could relate to the idea that children do now rule the roost, and that is not always a positive step. “Too much choice is probably not good for a child – I say that not as an expert, but as a mother of three,” she says. “We adults have responsibility for them, and it’s up to us to decide.”

But overall, she says she believes the advantages of the Swedish system outweigh the disadvantages. 

“There is a fundamental respect for children in Sweden, a consensus that all children have rights and should be listened to. It’s a very good lesson in democracy – I don’t think scaring them into obedience and silence is good for society,” she says.

“In general we have very good parents in Sweden who care an awful lot about their children and who give them a lot of their time and energy.”

Despite the apparent generosity of the system they live in, the challenges facing Swedish parents are the same as those faced by parents the world over – trying to achieve a balance between work and family.

Ebhard says it’s time to stop thinking of our children, Swedish or otherwise, as delicate, brittle creatures.

“Quick fixes don’t exist, but I keep coming back to the same thing – children aren’t as fragile as we think.”