The Maerestad family in their Stockholm home. Photo: AFP

Swedish children spoiled by spanking law, psychiatrist David Eberhard says

Psychiatrist says nation's youth are ill-mannered and bossy, prompting lively debate on parenting


Sweden had a head start in the good parenting debate as the first country to outlaw spanking but some argue that its child-centred approach has gone too far and children now rule the roost.

"In some ways Swedish kids are really ill-mannered," said David Eberhard, a psychiatrist and father of six. "They shout if there are adults speaking at the dinner table, they interrupt you all the time and they demand the same space as adults."

Eberhard recently published a book entitled , which argues that over the years Swedes have effectively extended their 1979 smacking ban - now adopted in more than 30 countries - to a ban on correcting children in any way.

"Of course you should listen to your children but in Sweden it's gone too far. They tend to decide everything in families: when to go to bed, what to eat, where to go on vacation, even what to watch on television," he said, adding that young Swedes are ill-equipped for adulthood.

"Their expectations are too high and life is too hard for them. We see it with anxiety disorders and self harming, which has risen dramatically," he said.

That view is contested by several experts including family therapist Martin Forster, who says that, on the whole, Swedish youth still top international rankings of well-being. "Sweden was very much inspired by ideas that children should be more in the centre and they should be listened to," he said. "That children decide too much - that's a matter of values. Different approaches to parenting and children produce different cultures."

Nonetheless, there is a lively debate about how the approach has influenced schools, with falling grades and complaints about rowdy classrooms.

"Two boys were swearing at each other - I didn't think seven-year-olds even knew words like that - and when I tried to intervene they swore at me and told me to mind my own business," said Ola Olofsson, a journalist, describing a visit to his seven-year-old daughter's classroom.

When he wrote about the chaos at the school, the paper's website was inundated with hundreds of comments from exasperated parents and teachers.

One teacher from Stockholm wrote that the four- and five-year-olds she teaches regularly say "you think I care!" when asked to do something.

"Just the other day a four-year-old spat at me when I asked him to stop climbing on some shelves," she said.

But what is it that makes Swedish parenting different?

Forster says it's more of a political issue and the public debate about right and wrong may leave parents more confused.

Following a government inquiry in 2010, a free parenting course, called "All Children in the Centre", was offered.

Its main message is that punishing children does not make them behave in the long run and setting boundaries is not always the right approach.

"If you want a child to co-operate the best way is to have a close relationship so the child will want to co-operate with you," said psychologist Kajsa Loenn-Rhodin, one of the architects of the course.

Marie Maerestad and her husband took the course in Stockholm last year when their daughters were aged two and three.

At meal times the children often ran about.

She said the course helped them "pick their battles" and communicate better with the children - but she added that children do often tend to dominate in Swedish homes.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Has Sweden let itself become too child-centred?