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I Parented Like A Scandinavian For A Week, & This Is What I Learned

by Sarah Bunton

Gender equality, education, and health care are all top issues in the news lately. Especially during an election season, it’s all too easy to get wrapped up in U.S. politics. My News Feed, DVR, and even the coffee shop banter are all inundated with all the topics plaguing our dear country. Friends and strangers are all too eager to politic for a specific candidate, vowing their promises for a better future are exactly what our nation needs. It’s already exhausting, and we haven’t even hit 2016 yet.

All this talk of what America is and isn’t getting right had me seriously wondering how the next generation is affected by all of this political narcissism and emphasis on success. What if my child would benefit from a global influence? Denmark and Norway, part of Scandinavia, are in the top five of the U.N.’s list of happiest countries. To put it into perspective, the U.S. clocks in at in at number 15, behind Costa Rica, Israel, Mexico, and New Zealand, just to name a few. This got me thinking about what it’d be like to take on an international parenting style and give my son a broader view of happiness, not just the American version.

The Experiment

For one week, I would try to closely follow key components of the ways that Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish parents treat their children. Since all three countries, which make up Scandinavia, ranked in the top 10 on the World Happiness Index, I decided to take a hodge-podge approach. I love the gender-neutral stance of Sweden, I adore the Dane’s focus on family time, and I really like the emphasis on being outdoors in Norway. Taking bits from each country, I’d try to embody the Scandinavian style of parenting, and I was really hopeful that some of their top-ranked happiness might rub off on my little family.

Day 1: Leveling Playing Field

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One of the main things that I love about the Swedish way of parenting is that they treat their children like equals. A recent study by Harvard Medical professors Mary Carlson and Fenton Earls says that the Swedish parenting method “gives respect for the child as a person in its own right and a belief in the child’s inherent skills and potential.” I really wanted to put this one to the test first, because honestly, how awesome is that?

How would I do this? I decided I would talk with my son like he was my equal. When he started pulling Tupperware out of the cabinets, I didn’t just remove him from the situation so I could put everything away. Instead, I spoke to him like I would a person. “Hey, I don’t want the Tupperware to be on the floor. Can you put it back please?” He stopped, looked up at me and asked, “Make Mommy sad?” I said that it didn’t make me happy when he did that. He paused but ultimately put the Tupperware back and asked, “Mommy happy?” I said yes, and he clapped. Day one was off to a great start.

Day 2: Cuddles And Convo

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Once upon a time, I read something that sounded like it was straight out of a fairy tale. I’m talking about something called Hygge in Denmark. Though the concept doesn’t have an exact translation in English, it can be explained as taking the time to enjoy the company of your loved ones in a comforting environment. Something about setting aside a special time of the day to focus on just your family was just so magical to me.

For us, this meant pressing pause on our routine. My husband and I usually balance our responsibilities like a game of tag. When he gets home from work, he can go shower and eat while I watch our son. Then when he’s done, I tag out and go eat and do whatever I need to do. But on the night of day two, we gathered in the living room, pulled out the sofa bed, and watched our son’s favorite show, Jeopardy. It was wonderful to be so cozy and connected. My husband and I rarely get to spend quality time like this, so it was nice to see him so warm and engaging. I think our son could feel this connection on some level and he seemed calmer for it.

Day 3: Fresh Air

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Norway may catch some flak for how they let their children stay outdoors even in the cold, but it comes from a place of embracing nature whether it’s nice out or not. I liked the idea of both getting out of the house more and taking the good right along with the bad. So my partner and I decided to go to the park with our son even though it seemed a bit stormy and windy out. The conditions weren’t great, but we were ready for an adventure.

When we got to the park, we saw that there was a birthday party going on as well. My normal instinct would have been to just turn right back around and find a different one. But, for sake of the experiment, we stuck with it. Once the birthday party moved to open presents, we had most of the playground to ourselves. It started to sprinkle, but our son was having the time of his life on the swings. Taking a cue from his enthusiasm, I tried to shut off the part of my brain that worried about slipping on wet pavement or getting muddy. But maybe we were supposed to get a little dirty in order to truly embody the Norwegian’s tenacity. I felt proud of us for embracing the outdoors in spite of the circumstances.

Day 4: Neutral Feels Natural

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In Sweden, they’ve been shaking up the status quo by adopting a gender-neutral pronoun, hen. It’s received support not only with different LGBT groups, but with kindergarten and grade schools as well. The Swedes feel that using a gender-neutral pronoun with children dismisses any sense of gender bias. I’ve been enthralled with this idea ever since I first heard of it. Ever since I was a youngster, I simply didn’t understand why girls and boys weren’t allowed to do certain things. Why wasn’t I supposed to be examining insects in the backyard? Why was my childhood neighbor scolded by his father for wearing his sister’s dance leotard? That’s why the concept of raising children without focusing on gender hit so close to home with me.

In full disclosure, we already try to keep our house pretty gender neutral, but I figured for day four, I’d be more dedicated with how I went about it. For instance, when dressing my son for nursery school, I made sure to dress him in gender-neutral colors and avoid shirts that had any kind of gender slogan on it (like “Handsome Like Daddy” or “Strong Guy”). I also let him wear whatever stickers he wanted. Amazingly, when I went to pick him up, no one even mentioned that he had “girl” stickers or wasn’t wearing a masculine outfit. Maybe the U.S. is more progressive than I thought. By putting Max out there, and stripping away my own expectations for what he “should” wear or “should look like”, I was encouraged and surprise by what I learned.

Day 5: Empathy Is Key

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Psychologist Iben Sandahl spoke with Mother magazine about a key part of Danish parenting, saying that the language parents use with their children teaches them about empathy. That means not using language that shames or belittles. If I’m constantly focusing on negative traits, calling people rude, immature, or annoying, my son is learning to criticize rather than empathize. It’s less about labeling and more about getting to the root of the emotion. It can be easy to forget that children learn so much about how the world works from watching their parents.

This concept wasn’t completely foreign to me, but I did notice how it took a conscious effort to be super vigilant about the words I used in front of and with my son. I would catch myself going to say something like, “They’re being so rude right now.” And I would reframe it to him and say, “I’m sorry those children made you feel sad. Maybe they’re sad to and that’s why they acted that way. Why don’t you go share your toys with them?” I’m not sure how much he understood of that, but at home he seemed very responsive to my focus on emotion. He even would play pretend that his stuffed animals were sad and so he’d hug them to make them feel better. My heart melted watching this genuine and unprovoked act of kindness from my typically feisty toddler.

Day 6: There’s No “I” In Team

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The Norwegian concept of Janteloven is a cultural belief that the focus is on taking care of the group ahead of the individual. Though that Scandinavian tradition might seem a bit odd in the U.S., where individualism and personal success is highly prized, it resonated with me. I never really bought into the whole obsession with money and fame thing that so many in my generation seem to be about. Call me old fashioned, but I think there’s value in being a little humble and doing what’s right for the team. But taking care of the group over a singular person is not necessarily the easiest thing for a toddler to understand, especially because they think they are the sole purpose of the universe no matter the hour. After all, his worldview is pretty me-centered right now. But I was determined to incorporate this into our lives somehow.

I can be a bit of a pushover sometimes. When my son is in tantrum-mode, especially in public, I can start getting the nervous sweats and will seek to do nearly anything to calm him down. But I figured if I was going to try out the Janteloven way, I wouldn’t stop everything just to focus on his meltdown. This one was arguably harder on me because I felt like I was fighting my nurturing instincts by letting him carry on while I took care of “the group” by finishing our grocery shopping. It was frustrating that I couldn’t just explain to him that he needed to chill so I could get groceries so he could eat. But I guess that’s the trademark of parenting a toddler: wanting to pull your hair out while simultaneously wanting to take a bullet for that crazy monster.

Day 7: All Play And No Work?

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In The Danish Way, psychologist Iben Sandahl states that play is not only more important than by-the-book education, it’s also not the lazy option. This isn’t to say that education is shunned, it’s that Danish parents think children can learn through free and creative play. They also believe allowing children space is crucial to healthy development. I’m all for having fun, but I definitely put an emphasis on working education into every aspect of our lives. I’m sure I fall into the first-time parent cliche by wanting to make sure I give my son every opportunity for a bright future. I just don’t want to hear from some psychiatrist years from now that he could have been a well-adjusted adult if only I had taught him his ABCs sooner. But was I stifling our son by focusing on educational activities?

I broke with my own tradition in favor of the Danes’. So instead of structuring everything around academia, we focused on play time. First, my son seemed to just be playing arbitrarily without rhyme or reason. But as I stepped back and just watched him, I noticed he was completely immersed in his imaginary world. Though I couldn’t quite understand what he was saying or his end goal, his eyes were bright and he was constructing his own rules of play. I felt like I was watching Mozart write a symphony, genius in action. It didn’t matter if he was traditionally learning or not because the ear-to-ear grin and victorious shouting was proof enough that he was having the best day ever.

Will I Go Global For Good?

I definitely got what I wanted out of this experiment, which was to bring more happiness into my parenting style and into my son’s life. It was a good reminder that we live in big, wide world filled of different cultures, all their own new and exciting twists on raising children. Sometimes it can be easy to just have tunnel vision with our own experiences, following the same routine day in and day out, but this experiment totally opened my eyes to new ways of engaging and encouraging my son. We were all involved and interested in different ways. Everyday was a chance to test our strengths and grow our weaknesses, and that was so cool.

The thing I valued most about the Scandinavian way of parenting was the emphasis on creating dialogue between the child and parent. In my day job, working with children who have learning difficulties, I unfortunately see parents take out all their frustration and confusion on children who can’t comprehend why they are the ones to blame. If there were more meaningful conversations where parents genuinely attempted to hear why their children feel or act the way they do, I’d probably be out of a job. I also feel like I totally added some great tools to my skill set in regards to talking about empathy, gender, and even autonomy. One thing I’ll for sure be incorporating into our everyday life is Hygge! Setting aside a mere thirty minutes is all it took for my little family’s sense of unity and well-being to sky rocket. Totally worth it.

Images: Courtesy of Sarah Bunton (8)