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