An article from the Economist Magazine demonstrates how the teaching of Swedish rules and social behavior in nursery schools are helping children to be strong and make decisions for themselves, making some immigrant families uncomfortable.

As practical as subsidized daycare and growing a child’s self confidence and decision making ability is, there has been a backlash from parents tied to old ways.

Critical thinking and Swedish values are causing conflict in families steeped in cultural traditions. It will be interesting to see how this story develops. Subscribe to The Economist print edition, get great savings and FREE full access to Click here to subscribe:

Alternatively subscribe to online only version by clicking on the link below and save 25%:

Jan 28th 2010

Nursery schools are the latest front-line in the Scandinavian
integration debate

IN SOFT, southern countries, snow is enough to close schools. In
Sweden–a place that lives by the maxim that “There is no such thing as
bad weather, just the wrong clothes”–fresh snow is a cue to send
18-month-olds into the playground, tottering around in snowsuits and
bobble hats. It is an impressive sight at any time. But it is
particularly striking in a Stockholm playground filled with Somali
toddlers, squeaking as they queue for sledge-rides.

The playground belongs to Karin Danielsson, a headmistress in Tensta, a
Stockholm suburb with a large immigrant population. Mrs Danielsson
calls her municipal preschool “a school for democracy”. In keeping with
Swedish mores, even young children may choose which activities to join
or where to play. All pupils’ opinions are heard, but they are then
taught that the group’s wishes must also be heeded.

Swedes take preschool seriously. Though education is not compulsory
until seven, more than 80% of two-year-olds are enrolled in preschool,
and many begin earlier. Among European countries only Denmark has
higher enrolment rates at that age.

Just three of Mrs Danielsson’s 85 pupils, aged from one to
five-and-a-half, speak Swedish as their mother tongue. Most come from
Somali backgrounds, or other cultures where young children stay at
home. That may be their tradition, Mrs Danielsson says. But in Sweden
“you need to learn Swedish rules and social behaviour.” She prefers her
pupils to enroll at 12- or 18-months-old, and to stay for six hours a

Swedish values can cause conflicts in immigrant families, she concedes.
It can be hard for parents to cope with “strong” children taught to
take decisions for themselves. Well, she says, “preschool teaches
parents about Sweden, too.”

Such self-confidence comes with a cost to individual liberty. Generous
welfare payments (including heavy subsidies to keep preschool fees low)
combine with high income taxes to shape Swedish childhoods into similar
patterns. Sweden offers 14 months of parental leave (12 months for one
parent, and two for the other, to encourage fathers to do their bit),
during which an average earner may receive up to 80% of his or her
salary, paid by the state. That means hardly any Swedish children under
a year old go to day care. A few months later, most are at preschool.

A new integration policy, to take effect at the end of 2010, will pay
immigrants to attend full-time language classes, “civic orientation”
courses or job training for two years after they obtain residence
permits. The benefits will be payable to individuals, not households.
The stated aim is to push immigrant women into the labour market (duly
propelling their children into day care).

Behind such policies lie a set of ideological beliefs, concedes a
senior government official. Swedes are fiercely attached to gender
equality. Economically, they think it good for women to work and pay
taxes. They also believe “it is good for young children to be in
preschool”, so they can be educated by trained professionals. In a nice
piece of circular reasoning, officials argue that children need to go
to preschool to make friends, because that is where all the other
children are.

Only one political party challenges this consensus: the small
centre-right Christian Democrats. A junior member of the coalition
government, the party last year secured a law offering monthly
allowances of 3,000 kronor (about EURO300) to parents who keep
under-threes at home. Party officials give the example of a rural
family, living some distance from the nearest preschool, with a child
born in the spring. Once statutory parental leave ends, the family
might prefer to keep their toddler at home for a few months more,
perhaps until after the summer. Yet the bigger point is to send a
political signal, say the Christian Democrats: parents should have a
choice about how to raise their families.

That argument has triggered a backlash among centre-left politicians
and education professionals. A 3,000-kronor allowance will mean little
to middle-class parents, but it is enough to persuade immigrant mothers
to keep toddlers at home, they charge. Mrs Danielsson says 5% of
children in her catchment area have vanished, thanks to the allowance.
After years running waiting lists, last year she had to go on local
television to fill her places.

In Denmark the debate has taken a harder edge. Pia Kjaersgaard, leader
of the populist right-wing Danish People’s Party, called last December
for councils to force toddlers from “vulnerable families” into creches
on pain of losing benefits, before they grow up into “gang members”.
She was referring mostly to immigrant families, she explained.

In fact, Denmark already has such “parental orders”. The debate is
about lowering the threshold for withdrawing benefits. The centre-left
Social Democrats reject such sanctions. But it should be “easier for
the authorities to say a child should attend day care” when the child
is at risk, says the party’s social-affairs spokeswoman, Mette
Frederiksen. Most under-threes who do not attend day care in Denmark
are from minority backgrounds, she notes. That denies them
opportunities other toddlers enjoy.

That the issue of compulsory day care is even on the agenda says
something about Denmark’s toxic immigration debate. Yet the Nordic
experiment is mostly kindlier than that. Mrs Danielsson’s school is
lovely, and her pupils seem happy. If Sweden is a nanny state, it is a
Mary Poppins nanny state, emasculating parents, in part, by being good
at what it does.

Few other countries are likely to try the experiment–Sweden and
Denmark spend about EURO10,000 a year per preschool pupil. Expect to
hear more, though, about clashes between parental freedom and
integration. The Nordics may be an extreme case, but their debate has
lessons for all Europe.

– – – – –

See this article with graphics and related items at

Go to for more global news, views and analysis from the Economist Group.