I recently travelled to Sweden on a playwork study tour. I’m in the process of typing up my notebook from the trip, but I’d forgotten that I’d already written up the overview below. So, in the spirit of dissemination of information, here is that overview. Further notes will also be posted in due course.
I went to Sweden with the expectation that there would be cultural (positive) differences in the way that adults there interacted with children (compared to what I’ve often seen in the UK). This may have tempered my observation and reflection. However, that said, my overall feeling is that there is something positive about Swedish attitudes towards children. What is that something?
In the time we spent in Lund, Malmö and Stockholm, I personally didn’t observe a single instance of children being treated without a degree of respect (in parks, the skate park, in the streets, on public transport – trains, buses, underground, in other public places like supermarkets, etc). Children were communicated with calmly, and listened to. Only once did I observe a child being talked with in a public place, by an adult, in a way to suggest they change what they were doing (a kindergarten worker, on the train from Sollentuna, who had a very quiet word with two children who were playing on the support pole and who accidentally brushed our legs). Only once did I observe an adult becoming a little frustrated with the children around her (one of the teachers at the I Ur Och Skur Utsiken Skola – Outside School – on Lidingö island, Stockholm). She was teaching directly and the children seemed to have understood the point of the lesson and were more interested in eating berries (which she was quite happy for them to do anyway). Perhaps my observations serve to highlight that we only saw a small cross-section of life in Sweden. That said, what I did observe was drawn from educational institutes, play settings, the ‘social competency’ of children being out and about on public transport, and children out on their own in parks or on the street.
The flipside to this observed general ease between adults and children, this Swedish democracy inherent in the culture, is – potentially – the ease with which the children accept a place within it all. That is, as I tried to root out of various people on the tour (our guesthouse host’s daughter, in Lund, with her Swedish/English parents; staff at the Parkleken playground in Stockholm; staff at Sköndalsskolan ‘youth club’): How do Swedish children rebel? What do playground and club staff do if there’s risky play or conflict going on? The answers were matter-of-fact and delivered in a way that suggested that these things didn’t really go on. Risky play happens, sure (I walked through Parkleken and saw a child hanging upside down on a bar by the backs of her knees), and children were walking on top of their ‘bike garage’ . . .
. . . but extreme risk? Major conflict? These things, judging by the responses I received, didn’t seem necessary to the children. It was only whilst sitting outside a bar in Gamla Stan (Stockholm’s old town), watching the people go by on the street, that I realised – observing as a girl of about six went past with an adult – that her jumping around and singing in the street was the first distinctively expressive sound I’d heard from any child thus far. It’s unfair to suggest that all Swedish children don’t express themselves though (walking back from the forest on Lidingö, I slowed down to let four of the girls walk past me as they sang, at the tops of their voices, and in English, ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’!)
What am I trying to conclude with all of this? Swedish democracy, developed as a way of interacting and ‘being’ from an early age, and part of the fabric of the culture, is definitely in evidence. It makes for a relatively calm and conflictless inter-generational society (at least, in the limited parts of the country I’ve seen). However, what’s the cost of this to the individual?
After listening to a presentation at the University in Stockholm, and on further discussions with Eva Kane, from the University, I was interested to learn about the move from 19th century ‘social training’, for poor children, to modern-day ‘social competency’. This can be clearly seen in practice when travelling the T-bana underground or on the buses: small groups of young children are accompanied by a couple of adults, or older children travel on their own. Eva also explained that the term ‘socialisation’ has very different connotations in Sweden to those of the UK. In the former, as I understand it, children are actively encouraged to be part of a democratic culture and country (you can see this, for example, not so subtly, in the laminated sheets pinned to all the classroom walls at Sköndalsskolan – their school motto of ‘Responsibility, safety, participation, conducive to work, respect’; more subtly, you can see this positive socialisation in the way children are listened to and trusted). Walking with the I Ur Och Skur Utsiken Skola on Lidingö, I was interested to see how Tim, the group leader, walked ahead when they reached a road (albeit not a busy road) and the children were trusted to cross on their own as they followed. How often would this happen in play settings or schools in the UK? ‘Socialisation’, here in the UK – from my experience – is about adults’ perceived necessity to mould children to fit into the ‘system’, ‘the rules of society’, the way it is (the adult world). In Sweden, there seems to be a subtle difference: children are active players in that society. Children seem to be given due respect. On the door of the bus from Lidingö was a sign, at adult eye level: Låt barnen gå av först – let children get off first.
A final reflection, for the time being, on Swedish culture: our host in Lund, Gareth, explained the concept of ‘averageness’, that being his translation of the Swedish word ‘lagom’. He’s fairly fluent in Swedish, though he’s English, and this, it transpires, appears to be significant. This discussion came about as part of conversations around rebellion, expression and aspirations. Gareth explained that the Swedes, in general, express no real discontent or need for distant or unobtainable aspirations. They seem, to him, to be contented with the status quo of the ‘average’. Later in the week, I asked Eva about this ‘averageness’. She immediately put a different spin on it (perhaps she’d heard of the ‘averageness’ translation before and wanted to put the record straight). Eva said that ‘lagom’ comes from an old Viking phrase of several words condensed down. It means (as I understood the conversation), essentially, ‘good enough’: that is, if everyone around the table at a Viking meal had enough to eat, then it was good enough.
In this sense, Swedish culture (from what I’ve seen), and Swedish adults’ attitudes towards children, are ‘good enough’. This is a positive – though perhaps there’s a need for an English phrase that can express the positive sentiment without sounding slightly negative, as ‘good enough’ has always done to me. I do understand the link, in our line of work, to Winnicott’s ‘good enough mother’, that the child is given exactly what is needed, but the phrase ‘good enough’ has never felt good enough to me. I digress.
As a further aside, feedback from my co-tourists included the interpretation that ‘lagom’ was more about being ‘just enough’ rather than ‘good enough’. That is, ‘there is just enough food for all of us and that will do.’
Sweden feels comfortable, democratic, an easy place to be. I do wonder where the ‘edge’ is though and, from that, I do wonder if there’s a need for an ‘edginess’, a rebellion. Has Sweden got it right? Or is it floating along, creating compliant young adults who will be compliant older adults? Is the social competency of Swedish socialisation a model of peace and well-being, or is it a very, very subtle suppression of otherwise free expression?
My own cultural upbringing has taught me to exercise restraint and be a little hesitant in totally embracing other societal models (hence the questions about rebelling). I do like Sweden and I will go back there. I just can’t work out the exact nature of what I like the most, and whether I should let myself feel this way!