Parenting culture is the latest hot export from Scandinavia. But what exactly do parents in Europe's far north do differently?

By Linda Åkeson McGurk
November 10, 2017
Each product we feature has been independently selected and reviewed by our editorial team. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
Mother and son walking in the snow
Credit: Aliyev Alexei Sergeevich/Getty Images

From minimalist design and catchy pop music, to the elusive concept of hygge, people everywhere are swooning over Scandinavian culture. The latest up-and-coming export from Europe's far north? Parenting. And with good reason. When U.S. News ranked the best countries to raise a child in 2017, Sweden came in on top, followed by Norway and Denmark in second and third place. Their strong economies in combination with the most generous parental leave policies in the world naturally help the Scandinavian countries consistently score high in these types of reports. But there's more to the Scandinavian parenting culture than that. Here are five parenting lessons you can learn from Scandinavian moms and dads:

1. There's no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes

If you've ever heard this old saying, thank the Scandinavians. This attitude is key to getting kids outside and playing every day, regardless of the weather, in a region where it is often cold, rainy, or both. It isn't just parents who are found pushing strollers through the streets in freezing weather; both at preschool and school teachers make sure that the children dress for the elements and take them outside to play, often for hours every day. The benefits? The kids are less prone to infection, may have better vision, stay in shape, and are believed to develop resilience.

2. Embrace the wild in the child

While wild and dirty kids are often frowned upon in other cultures, digging in the dirt and stomping around in the mud are par for the course for children in Scandinavia. In fact, parents even encourage and cherish messy play, since it's considered an essential part of a good childhood. It can be a boon to children's health, too. Letting them dig in dirt exposes them to healthy bacteria, which in turn can help build a strong immune system, improve gut health, and reduce the risk of asthma and allergies. Some bacteria are even known to trigger the brain's production of the "feel-good" neurotransmitter serotonin. With that in mind, running your washing machine a little more often seems like a small trade-off!

3. Forget the flashcards

Scandinavian parents mainly expect one thing from their children in the early years: that they spend as much time as possible playing. And they have plenty of time for it, since formal schooling doesn't start until age six or seven. Most parents and preschool teachers agree that children will learn what they need to learn when they're ready for it and there is no pressure to teach children how to read and write early. They may be on to something, since research has shown that by age 11, there is no significant difference between children who learn to read at age five and those who learn at age seven. The kicker? Those who learn later have better text comprehension and a more positive attitude toward reading.

4. Freedom fosters responsibility

Busy extra-curricular schedules and a fear of (in no particular order) lawsuits, strangers, nature, traffic, and a surprise visit from Child Protective Services are keeping many American kids under virtual house arrest. Not so much in Scandinavia, where even young children are given the freedom to climb trees, use real tools, play with fire, and walk to the neighborhood playground on their own. By the time they're nine or 10, they're typically expected to get to their after-school activities on their own—by foot, bike, or by using public transit. This, Scandinavian parents believe, helps them learn how to judge risk, make sound decisions, and be responsible, and research suggests that they're right.

5. It's all about the friluftsliv

There's no doubt Scandinavian kids love their TV shows and electronic devices. But young children don't spend nearly as much time in front of screens as their American counterparts, and their parents have a powerful trick to get them to unplug: friluftsliv. Roughly translated to "open-air living," friluftsliv can be described as a way of life that revolves around appreciating and spending time in nature. But you don't have to live in pristine countryside to enjoy friluftsliv—it's all about appreciating nature in everyday life, and walking around the neighborhood or grilling hot dogs in a local park counts, too. In addition to helping parents balance screen time with green time, friluftsliv is a powerful way for children to learn about their role in the natural world, and how to become good stewards of the land. And ultimately, that's probably the most important lesson of them all.

Linda McGurk is a Swedish-American freelance journalist and blogger who lives with her family in rural Indiana. Her writings about natural parenting and outdoor play have appeared in a wide range of newspapers, magazines, and online publications in North America as well as Europe. In 2013, she started the blog Rain or Shine Mamma to inspire outdoor play and adventure every day, regardless of the weather. She is the author of There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather.