Education and Skills

Why Nordic nations are the best places to have children

A segway tour stops in front of flags of the Nordic nations hanging from the Eisenhower Executive Office Building beside the White House in Washington, May 11, 2016. On Friday, U.S. President Barack Obama will host the leaders of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden for a U.S.-Nordic Leaders Summit. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque - S1BETDMHQOAA

From generous parenting policies to free care products ... Sweden, Denmark and Norway lead the way. Image: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Douglas Broom
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Other nations often look to Scandinavia for inspiration on family policies. The region’s childcare arrangements are among the most generous in the world, supporting parents from the early days of pregnancy to school and beyond.

In the recent Best Countries for Raising Kids ranking, Nordic nations account for four of the top five. Sweden took the top slot (up from number two last year) followed by Denmark and Norway. Finland is in fifth place. According to researchers, who studied 80 countries in all, their appeal is based on a combination of state support and family-friendly cultures.

Baby basics

One of the best-known features of Nordic parenting is Finland’s Maternity Package, or "baby box", which have been given to all new mothers since the 1930s. They contain clothes, care products and a first reading book. In today's package, which is reviewed annually, there are 64 items.

The cardboard box itself has become something of an icon. In most Finnish homes, it doubles as a cot for the newborn baby. The scheme has been emulated globally, with Scotland doing something similar, and local schemes in Canada and Malaysia. Some companies offer them for private sale.

Then there's the generous childcare policies. Finland provides free universal daycare from eight months until the start of formal education at age seven.

The Swedish example

In Sweden, parents are entitled to 16 months parental leave, the first year paid at 80% of their salary. Parents also receive a monthly Child Allowance of SEK 1,050 ($113) per child and can use it to offset the cost of preschool (förskola), which is only around SEK 200 more per month. If parents have to take time off to care for sick children they are entitled to continue receiving 80% of their pay.

Almost all Swedish children attend preschool from 18 months to the start of formal education at age six. As an additional benefit, people with prams or pushchairs travel free on buses in major cities, including Stockholm.

Image: Statista

Back to the woods

The Danes have long been recognized as pioneers in early years childcare. The Forest School movement, for instance, started in Denmark. Staff and children spend their time outdoors, usually in woodland, and the emphasis is on playing with found objects rather than commercial toys. Proponents say they improve physical coordination and encourage children to be self-reliant.

Childcare charges in Denmark are capped at 30% of the actual cost for nurseries, kindergartens and after school centres. Typical fees are less than DKK 3,900 ($590) per month.

Norwegian parents are entitled to a flat-rate child benefit allowance of NOK 1,054 ($123), per child per month, which is doubled for lone parents. Kindergartens are open for up to 10 hours per day and charge a maximum fee of NOK 2,500 ($290) per month.

Parental leave is paid at full pay for the first 44 weeks or at 80% if parents opt to take 54 weeks. To encourage both parents to play their part, fathers must take at least six weeks' parental leave or risk the family losing payments for the same period.

Have you read?

Although not in the top 10 rankings, Iceland offers child benefit paid to parents based on their actual net income. It is reassessed twice a year to take account of changes in earnings. Each parent is entitled to three months parental leave, plus an additional three months to be shared.

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