Kid-friendly Sweden aims to better record with parenting classes

Already considered one of the best countries for raising children, Sweden aims to better its record by offering even more classes to help mums and dads improve their parenting skills.

The Scandinavian country now gives all parents of newborns the opportunity to attend classes and discussion groups to ease them into their new role. But the state is bent on expanding its free-for-all education to parents of older children as well.

“Of course we can do more as parents,” said Åsa, a divorced mother of eight-year-old twin boys who braved a snowstorm to attend a parenting class in the southern Stockholm suburb of Skarpnäck.

“I get all stressed out when one of my sons won’t do what I want. I’m always asking myself if I should take a stand on this issue and stick to principle, or will that just agitate them,” said the 34-year-old, glancing timidly around at her classmates.

And Swedish parents are biting the bait. Over the past three years, the number taking part in such classes has more than trebled, jumping from two percent in 2004 to seven percent last year, according to the Swedish National Institute of Public Health (SNIPH).

“Studies have showed us that at least half of all parents in Sweden are interested in these kinds of classes. Our goal is to reach between 30 and 40 percent,” SNIPH researcher Sven Bremberg tells AFP.

While many countries have long offered help for parents with problem children, more and more Swedish municipalities are offering classes aimed at average parents with average problems.

“Many parents come here because they have problems with quarrels and authority at home,” said family counsellor Magnus Braun, a father-of-three who runs the Skarpnäck class. “But these classes are for all parents. I think all parents are dealing with these kinds of issues.”

The classes “work for everyone: for people with no real problems and people with a lot of problems. They can be adjusted to different degrees of problems,” said Åsa Kling, a psychologist who has studied the efficiency of one of the most popular parenting programs called “Komet”.

“The parents improved their so-called parenting competency, and children who had been acting out had fewer behavioural problems after their parents went through the programme,” she said.

And a whopping 99 percent of the parents who took the classes said they would recommend them to others, Kling added.

Back at the Skarpnäck class, Braun put on a teaching video and challenged his students, “What went wrong here?” The tape showed a boy playing a computer game. His father came in, said it was time to eat and turned off the screen, resulting in a screaming match and the father physically dragging the boy to the table.

“That was way too fast. Computer games are like watching a film. You can’t just switch them off like that,” said Christopher, a 36-year-old father of two with a long pony-tail and wire-rimmed glasses. “Kids need a few minutes to get used to the idea.”

His comment brought Braun to a cardinal rule in the Komet programme: preparation.

“To prepare children for what’s coming is a must. You have to give them a little time to stop what they’re doing and prepare mentally for the switch,” he said. His tip was simple but effective: use a timer, let children know they must brush their teeth or change their clothes in 10 minutes.

“Then you let them know when five minutes left, then two. You’ll see a difference,” he insisted.

Another tenet of the Komet parenting class is to praise good behaviour and to try not to emphasize bad behaviour, which is seen as reinforcing undesirable conduct.

The method dovetails with the gentle, pedagogical approach to child rearing that prevails in Sweden and other Nordic countries, where any physical punishment of children is banned and even scolding is often frowned upon.

The Komet programme does offer parents tips on disciplining their children, but Braun said “we don’t talk about punishment but about consequences.”

“You have to start by building up the child’s confidence, building up a working relationship. Only then can you start with measures to show the consequences of the child’s negative actions,” Kling said.

“For many parents it never comes to that, because the problems simply disappear after they implement the first part of the programme,” she insisted.

Christopher said his very first Komet class changed the way he related to his five-year-old son.

“I’ve been thinking about not just standing there and lecturing him, about swallowing my words a bit, about listening to him more, and letting him decide what we play,” he said.

“It was fun.”

AFP’s Nina Larson