In Sweden, children count as individuals, and they are being listened to. This is clear when you look at statistics, the number of children’s organizations, government programs and laws, or directly at the kids who live, play and learn in Sweden.
All Swedish children have right to school busing, but many go to school by car. Photo: Stephan Berglund/Bildarkivet.se
“Sweden is definitively a good place to grow up in. We have a high standard of living with a lot of the kind of support required to provide a good life for a child,” says Ola Mattsson, Deputy Director of Save the Children Sweden, an organization that promotes children’s rights globally.
The support he refers to is evident in Swedish laws, non-profit organizations and government programs. Sweden was one of the first nations to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and since the early 1970s Sweden has been actively committed to providing children with necessary care and support. In 1979 Sweden became the first country in the world to prohibit all corporal punishment of children.
One of the reasons for Sweden’s early commitment lies in a tradition of social movements such as the workers’ movement, women’s movement and temperance movement. Mattsson explains that “The entire Swedish democracy is based on a strong history of social movement and volunteer organizations. They were established towards the end of the 19th century and worked with a number of issues. The rights of children was, and still is, one of these important questions.”
Parental leave in Sweden is among the most generous in the world and all parents get 480 days of paid leave per child. School is also free in Sweden (except for nursery schools, although these are partly funded by the government, and higher education, which comes with a fee for people from outside the European Union, the EEA or Switzerland). The system also helps working parents balance parenthood with a career.
About 23 percent of the parental benefit days are paid out to men. Photo: Anna Holmquist/Bildarkivet.se
Besides these government initiatives, there are many non-profit organizations that provide assistance, help-lines and mental and moral support to children, youth and parents.
Still work to be done
Sweden has experienced significant immigration during recent decades and is challenged by the task of ensuring that the rights of immigrant children are met. These children have often been through difficult experiences that Swedish society has not been completely equipped to deal with. Vulnerable groups — such as unaccompanied, asylum-seeking children — also need special attention and a different approach.
“There is a growing segment of children in Sweden who are discriminated against due to their social status,” Mattsson says. “They have a harder time to manage school, good health and quality spare time. There are a number of reasons for this, but one essential factor is the difficulty the parents of these children are experiencing in trying to get established in the work force. Considering the resources available in this country, we should be able to do better.”
According to Save the Children Sweden’s 2012 study on child poverty, it is children born outside of Sweden, children who live in the suburbs of big cities, and children with single parents who turn up on their list. Luckily, Sweden is well placed to confront these problems. Unfortunately, it seems to take time. But the nation’s dedication to children’s rights worldwide offers good hope for the future.
Influence, creativity and learning
Perhaps one of the most important, and somewhat unique, experiences to be found in Swedish children is that they are listened to. Not only in family life, but government offices and companies regularly bring in young Swedes and listen to their concerns to create room for their influence.
One example is the Swedish Transport Administration. They are responsible for the construction, operation and maintenance of all state owned roads and railways — and they have set up workshops and dialogue with children to assess how young people view traffic dangers, noise and signage. The input was later used in the decision-making process. Children observe different risks than grown-ups. Whether it is a conflict, a traffic jam or a natural disaster, children are worth listening to.
Since 1993, Swedish children have their own ombudsman to ensure that their rights and interests are represented. Photo: Jörgen Wiklund & Co/Bildarkivet.se
Children also like to play. Teachers in Sweden have tested the effects of play in education and the results are overwhelmingly positive. Educators now encourage play as a part of teaching. Per-Olof Nilsson is a retired professor who runs an experiment workshop called The House of Learning in Gothenburg in the west of Sweden. He works with both students and educators in an effort to show that fun and learning are indeed not opposites.
“Simply cramming a lot of facts into the left side of your brain is useless,” Nilsson says. “We need to add fantasy and creativity to mix it all up. I call this ‘the chaos of learning’.”
Hopefully in time we will see many more initiatives of this kind, from Sweden and all around the world.
Rikard Lagerberg is a Swedish writer, editor and translator.
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