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Submitted by a TNL reader

A while ago, a friend we hadn’t seen in a long time came to Sweden to visit us. Perhaps because of the exaggeration of some news report, I constantly noticed my friend inconspicuously watching whether or not our children were misbehaving. When the subject was finally brought up in our conversation, we laughed, “Any child will give you trouble from time to time, no matter which country you are in.”

To be honest, I asked my Swedish friends the same question as well when we had just moved to Sweden. “Why do your kids never seem to make any trouble?”

They also smiled and said, “That’s not true. You just happened not to be around to see it.”

Not long after my friend had left, he sent me a news article, asking us what Swedish people would do if they came across a child on the train that was constantly screaming.

The article described two small children that were noisy and misbehaving the entire time on the train. The mother, on the other hand, didn’t seem to hear anything. Afterwards, agitated passengers uploaded videos and publicly criticized the mother’s behavior. Situations like this are uncommon, but there are parents like this, whether in Asia or Sweden.

Coming back to my friend’s question of how Swedish people would handle a noisy child on the train.

According to my own experience, we don’t often encounter something like this. To be more specific, it’s not that we don’t come across noisy children, but we don’t often see parents who will “turn a deaf ear.” Every child is noisy sometimes, whether on long train rides, during dinner in a restaurant, standing in massive lines at an amusement park or, even worse, when they’re in pain or scared.

When a crying child on the train met a refined old man

I remember one time we took an almost three-hour train ride from Stockholm back to Linköping. In our compartment sat a young father with a boy of about three years old. The boring ride was, without a doubt, torture for the young and energetic boy.

About halfway through the journey, the little boy started to get out of control and began to let out high-pitched screams. His father immediately, using a gentle voice, stopped him from screaming, took the anxious child in his arms comfortingly while pacing up and down the compartment. For the most part, the other passengers in the compartment smiled at the child’s crying, even the unmarried female student sitting across from me showed no discomfort whatsoever. She merely silently put in her earphones and listened to music while looking out of the window.

The father sat down, and the old man across from them took out a small toy and started distracting the little boy. For a second, the two seemed as harmonious as a real grandfather and grandchild. The father hastily took out some snacks, toys and books from his backpack, trying to comfort his little guy, but the small boy was unable to resist his curiosity towards the stranger and played excitedly with the old man, seeming to temporarily forget all the discomfort of the journey. This was a three-hour train ride, but also a realistic representation of Swedish upbringing, showing the way a Swedish father handles his crying child, but also the attitude of Swedish fellow travelers when confronted with a noisy child.

Photo Credit:David J Laporte@Flickr CC BY 2.0

Photo Credit:David J Laporte@Flickr CC BY 2.0

Is Sweden ruled by little devils?

In 2013, a Taiwanese author translated a Swedish news article into “Sweden controlled by disobedient children.” This English news article initially meant to discuss Sweden putting a stop to physical punishment and being overly submissive to the children and whether or not this led to children having behavioral problems.

When the article first appeared, it evoked a lot of reactions from Swedish parents. The most admirable aspect of Swedish people is after a problem has been brought up it will not be ignored for years. Instead it will be discussed thoroughly and educational policies changed accordingly, with schools implementing the changes and parents cooperating.

In Sweden, teacher-parent meetings are organized once or twice every semester.
Furthermore, parents have the opportunity to personally sit down with a teacher once every semester. Swedish parents will try their best to show up each time, leaving no empty seats. During the one-on-two (one teacher and two parents) parent-teacher meetings, besides discussing the curriculum laid out for every semester and its implementation, there will be special attention paid to the improvement of the children’s behavior when doing teamwork. The schools request parents to take up the responsibility of educating their children.

Different from Asian parents who are mainly concerned with the academic performances of their children, Swedish parents attach more importance to their children failing on a social level because of the excessive freedom they’re given. They believe mental health and behavioral norms are the cornerstones of a stable society’s progress. That is why problems in the education of children, from the moment they arise until now, are continuously being worked on comprehensively.

If you look back on the way parents handle their children in public spaces in the last couple of years or even the teaching methods in kindergartens, you will notice that although the Swedes persist on a free upbringing – as long as it is not dangerous, one should not get overly involved and let children keep being curious and imaginative. But there is some definite control and grown-up disciplinarily responsibilities within this ostensibly free and relaxed upbringing.

When their child needs help, the parents will quickly respond. You don’t often see Swedish parents completely absorbed in their own world, chatting or glued to their phones. In any public space, when their child is disturbing others, even if no one is complaining, Swedish parents will immediately put a stop to their child’s behavior. But not in a way that looks down on them and intimidatingly pointing out their fault. Instead, they will stoop down and tell the child with a warm but stern voice, “You are bothering other people.”

In a restaurant, kids who are running around uncontrollably will be told to go outside to cool down. When loosing their patience in a long line at the zoo and they start to race up and down, parents will take out toys, drinks and snacks to distract their attention, patiently calling their names and reminding them not to bother other people and leave their sight.

Corporal punishment will not be used in Sweden anymore, but parents are starting to get good at other forms of soft discipline. Here you will not find the authoritarian education of Asia. Children are treated equally like adults, consulted with patience, talked to reasonably and left to figure out their own mistakes.

Right next to a crying child, you will see people’s smiles and patience

The stranger facing you and your crying child will not immediately ask why your child is crying, whether he or she is feeling unwell or not, but will use their own upbringing experiences to help out. The old man on the train was not an exception.

Once our friends and us took our children out to play and eat something on the way. After the kids got used to one another, they didn’t want to be apart for a single second. When we were just about to go to the ground floor, their daughter confidently jumped into the elevator along with us, her father said to her, “I will take the stairs and will wait for you in front of the elevator downstairs.”

Right after the elevator doors closed, she regretted her decision and started to cry in the huge elevator. I hugged her, but couldn’t seem to calm her down. A Swedish mother next to us smilingly said to her, “Daddy is downstairs, let’s count to three together, the doors will open and you will see your daddy!” Although she was still sobbing in my embrace, I could clearly feel her fear gradually disappearing. We counted together softly and when the doors opened, she rushed into her father’s arms and said, “Let’s not do that again.”

When I wasn’t a mother yet, I also had an unexplainable aversion against the crying of children. It was only after having children did I start to understand the embarrassment and anxiety parents feel when dealing with a crying child. The help or the nasty looks you get from the people next to you can turn this situation into either heaven or a living hell.

A Swedish person once proudly said to me, “Perhaps not all of us Swedes are terribly friendly, but we trust 99% of us will help when you need it.”

What motivates the society a progress? Good grades or the warmth of people?

To accomplish anything, a certain amount of rules is indispensible. However, the responsibility for the foundation of the child’s behavior remains with the parents. The school and social policy are merely tools to help the parents. In order to bring up well-behaved children with self-discipline, even a country like Sweden is still making amendments to this day.

So are foreign children noisy? “Of course they are,” but Swedes will not shirk their responsibilities as parents. They hope by using this network of social rules they will be able to raise children who are self-disciplined and capable of empathy. They also hope to create an even more glorious future by using warm but orderly human kindness.

You might think your child is still little and there is no need for a patient talk about common sense and that strict control is enough. You’re exhausted and simply want some rest. But do you think it is all right if your child only plays with electronics and the day care feeds him, as long as he’s quiet? You believe your child merely needs top grades and doesn’t have to be aware of any social rules. But while you’re bending your head over your phone, do you have any clue what your child is up to?

That is why you will believe foreign children don’t cry. Only when your child misbehaves, will you say, “What happened? He was an angel the whole time, his grades are excellent too.” But you forgot something. You forgot when he was still very little and the first time he misbehaved, to kneel down and tell him like an adult, “This is not right.”

If bad behavior isn’t corrected at a young age, it will get even worse at time goes by. The wisdom of parents during childhood will be lost in time, leading to uncountable hair-raising incidents in society that have shattered the ethical framework, distorting it unrecognizably.

Translated by Stijn Wijker
Edited by Olivia Yang