Conservative party leader David Cameron, now British Prime Minister, visits a pre-school in Sweden in 2008. Photograph: Andrew Parsons/PA
Yet another report has been issued by the UN which paints Sweden as a paradise for children. The latest report, issued by UNICEF, is called Children’s Well-being in UK, Sweden and Spain: The Role of Inequality and Materialism.
The study does have interesting things to say about materialism. For example, it contrasts the manner in which British parents endlessly buy toys for their children compared with the much more restrained attitude of Swedish and Spanish parents. In one giveaway comment, quoted in the report a UK mother interviewed by the UNICEF researchers pats herself on the back for not buying her children a toy every time she goes out. The report also mentions the boxes in British households that are full of toys most of which the kids have forgotten about.
In this regard, Irish parents seem to be much more like their UK counterparts than their Swedish or Spanish counterparts.
However, by concentrating only on inequality and materialism, and by leaving out other key factors influencing child well-being, such as family structure, Sweden is almost guaranteed to come out on top in reports such as this because Sweden is a very egalitarian society that appears to rightly reject some of the worst excesses of consumerism.
But precisely because it is so egalitarian, the Swedish state has also completely stripped marriage of any special standing in Swedish society. This is one reason why Sweden has a low marriage rate, a very high rate of cohabitation, and a very high rate of births outside marriage (more than one in two of all births).
It simply stretches credulity to suggest that this isn’t having any impact on children in Sweden when we know that the family based on marriage is the one that most reliably produces the best outcomes for children.
In fact, even UNICEF itself, in its Report Card 7, issued in 2007, felt forced to admit, “there is evidence to associate growing up in single-parent families and stepfamilies with greater risk to well-being – including a greater risk of dropping out of school, of leaving home early, or poorer health, or low skills and of low pay.” If even UNICEF is prepared to admit this (albeit in a very muted way), then the evidence in favour of it must be overwhelming.
Given the facts about family breakdown in Sweden, how then are we expected to believe that it is a paradise for children?
In addition, and as Jonas Himmelstrand told the Iona Institute conference on “Women, Home and Work” in May, the vast majority of Swedish children are put in day-care from the age of one, but due to UNICEF’s commitment to equality at all costs (meaning all women must work like it or not), it doesn’t think to ask whether this might have a detrimental effect on children.
Himmelstrand points to evidence that it does indeed have a detrimental effect, although this is very likely to be also caused by the decline of marriage in his country. He tells us, for example, that the educational performance of Swedish children has slipped from near the top of tables comparing rich countries, to just average.
The number of children reporting psychological problems is growing at a faster rate than in 11 comparable countries. According to one study Himmelstrand cites, Sweden has among the most serious school discipline problems in Europe today. He quotes an EU-sponsored study by Swedish school researcher Britta Johansson who describes the growing difficulties Swedish parents face raising their kids.
All of this stands to reason. If family breakdown in Sweden is so widespread and the State virtually forces parents to put their children in day care after one year, then there are bound to be problems.
Some day the UN will be honest enough to admit this. Then we will find that Sweden isn’t quite the children’s paradise it is made out to be.
David Quinn is a well-know Irish journalist and Director of the Iona Institute.