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In Sweden, Children are Citizens… Not Overheads

It is a mid-May Sunday in Stockholm. It is drizzling. It is very cold. I’m taking my daughter to the opening of a new municipal playground in the center of the city: a great place designed by people who obviously thought a lot about what kids like. The playground is located in a prime spot. In many other cities in the world this space would have been sold long ago to make way for apartments or shops.

There is a modest party. There is fruit, carrots, cookies and juice for the kids. There is strong Swedish coffee for the parents. There is a man making balloon animals. There are musicians. The kids range in age from newborns to the over tens. The atmosphere is warm in the cold Nordic wind.

So, what is this park? What was that party?

Of course, it’s easy to understand these as things that make my life easier: there is a park so I can take my child there, and there is a party that will amuse my daughter and give me a few moments of respite. It’s all about me as a parent. It’s all about me as an adult. But the park and the party are about something much more important…they are about treating children as citizens. They are about sending the message that life in a democracy does not begin when you turn 18. Or when you get a job. Or when you get a credit card. It’s about telling people — even if that person is only three years old — that their worth isn’t necessarily bound to their ability to pay a mortgage or vote in an election.

We all know about the obvious examples of Swedish social democracy in relation to kids, such as the generous parental leave and the subsidized daycare. Loved or hated, these aspects are almost always discussed (at least in popular terms) in relation to the parents and how they enable successful careers or boost the economy. Rarely, however, do we think of how these programs send a long-term message to children that they are valuable members of society who, at this precise moment in time, simply cannot fend for themselves. So, the state steps in to make sure that their rights and well-being are respected, just as the rights and well-being of their larger fellow citizens are respected.

In other words, things like the park, the party, the parental leave and the daycare display a combination of love and respect for children that goes beyond political platitudes about how important kids are, or how they are “our future.” It’s about putting your public money where your public mouth is.

In our human bodies we have something called “muscle memory”. When we repeat a physical action enough times (such as riding a bike or playing an instrument), our bodies execute that action unconsciously, and with a minimum of effort and a maximum of efficiency. Doing something once or twice will not create that muscle memory: it requires effort, repetition and determination. Building social respect for children — thereby making that respect a unconscious reflex action — is like building muscle memory. It is not achieved by one speech, one event or one park, but by sustained, repetitive effort over time. We put a lot of effort into preparing children to be consumers, but far less into preparing them to be citizens.

As the party in the park in Stockholm began to draw to a close, parents could be seen spreading out in all directions, accompanied by children grasping their balloon animals, cookies and bananas. These material goods will ultimately be consumed, or perish and be discarded. The memories of the day, however, will not perish. Years later, children will remember their play in a public park, or perhaps be shown pictures and be told about the fun that was had by all. They will consider how wonderful it was to have such a thing, and perhaps, when the time comes, fight for the same for their children or the children of others.

Christian Christensen

Christian Christensen

Christian Christensen, American in Sweden, is Professor of Journalism at Stockholm University. Follow him on Twitter: @ChrChristensen

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