It's not likely that Canadians will read Swedish psychiatrist David Eberhard's new book about Swedish parenting. But the headline in the U.K. press says quite a lot: "Sweden's liberal approach to raising children has bred a nation of ill-mannered brats." Dr. Eberhard is asking Swedish parents to reclaim their parental role.
In fact, the Swedish approach to raising children is not best described as "liberal." Rather the Swedish approach is that the state has taken over raising children from parents through the state run daycare system -- a phenomenon I have studied for several years as an educator and a writer.
North Americans are presented with a vision of heavenly perfection in Swedish daycare but in reality, education outcomes are declining, teens are anxiety-ridden and misbehaving and the quality of parenting is suffering.
Ninety-two percent of all 18 month to five year olds are in daycare in Sweden. Universality is a much admired principle and it's true that this has been achieved.
However, the outcomes are otherwise unremarkable, even negative, for psychological health, learning, maternal health and parenting.
Let's start with the ever deteriorating psychological health of Swedish youth, which has become a major concern in Swedish public debate today. A 2006 investigation by the Swedish government reveals that Sweden is worse in this regard when contrasted with 11 comparable European countries since the 1980s.
Other studies show similar results. And if you interview any Swedish school teacher with a few decades of experience they will confirm this.
Examining attachment-based developmental science, it is very hard to deny a possible connection between daycare and these outcomes. This is especially true since Sweden is doing extraordinarily well on a host of other indicators such as equality, low child poverty, education expenditure and a generally high standard of living.
On international educational (PISA) scores, Swedish school results have dropped from a high position a few decades ago to merely average among OECD countries today. A Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study shows that disorder in Swedish classrooms is among the worst among comparable countries.
The government blames the schools but an increasing view among Swedish teachers and school psychologists is that the school problem is, to a great degree, a family problem. Children are simply not sufficiently emotionally nourished to be teachable in school.
Taking a quick peek at neighbouring Finland, we see a country that tops the education charts. Their welfare system is very similar to Sweden and both countries enjoy a high standard of living. However, there is a critical difference: Finland offers a home care allowance until three years of age. This means that a majority of children don't start pre-school until age three. Developmental psychology tells us this makes a world of difference for a child.
Not to mention, a visitor to Finland and Sweden will notice that parents are a lot stronger in Finland which, of course, supports the teacher's role in school.
Neither is the Swedish daycare system successful for gender equality. Sweden has exceptionally high rates of sick leave for women. Furthermore, Sweden has one of the most gender segregated labour markets in the world. Women work in pre-schools, schools and health care. Men work in industry and higher management.
Not unexpectedly, parental quality has suffered. A study done a few years ago showed that today even socially stable middle class families have problems with their children. The researcher concluded that the offering of full-day daycare seemed to make the parents see that the responsibility and expertise of their children was to be found in daycare, rather than at home.
A final question mark is the ever increasing group sizes and child to adult ratios in Swedish daycare. Swedish experts are not satisfied with these ratios. They themselves say some children below three will suffer. Yet better ratios requires more money and daycare is simply one of many political items. Financing depends on the political climate, not on children's needs.
What can the world learn from Sweden? Sure, many parents want to have daycare. But it is a mistake for the state to encourage it. Child care must be a parental decision based on the need of the child, not a state decision based on politics and the economy. The state needs to remain neutral to all forms of care -- daycare, home care, nanny, granny care and neighbour care -- and not support one form of care above another.
Discussions of national daycare plans ought to include the bad with the good. In Sweden the evidence is building: Sweden's daycare system is not worth imitating.
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