Did you know that some French moms don’t allow their children to graze after dinner? Or that some Japanese moms encourage mindful eating from a young age by using smaller plates? If you’ve ever wondered how children are raised around the world, then our series Global Mom will pique your curiosity.
If there’s one thing about the crazy ride of parenting that always remains constant, it’s inconsistency. No two days are the same, and we tune into our gut instinct and intuition to lead the way. Even if we read all the books, there is no way to really plan for it, but that doesn’t mean we stop trying, right? And when we need advice, we seek it out from other moms first. The sisterhood of moms is a vital support network that ensures we’re never alone on those sleepless nights (because we’ve all been there).
So on the topic of sharing, we were curious to find out if our parenting styles in the U.S. are much different from the rest of the world. We recently learned that some French mothers speak to their children like adults to bolster maturity, and some Dutch moms are all about routine, so what about Swedish kids? We tapped Stockholm-based New Yorker Irene Jondal, founder and creative director of fashion label Eneri, to let us in on how Swedish parents raise their kids, the eating habits they teach, and their thoughts on discipline.
MYDOMAINE: Tell us about your background.
IRENE JONDAL: I was raised in South Bronx, but I was born in Germany to a Chilean mother and a Dominican father. I am the oldest of three sisters. I have lived in different parts of New York City throughout my life. It's also where I met my now-husband, Viktor, who is Swedish. Before moving to Sweden, I lived in Williamsburg with my husband (who lived in NYC for 18 years since the age of 21 to attend university), our son, Bo, and our two dogs, Lily and Pepper. Life in Sweden now is pretty sweet. I love all the nature that is so easily accessible. The country is set up to raise children. The support and care of children are a priority, which I love.
Work/life balance is also really important. There are lots of holidays, and the standard five weeks of vacation in summer, which most people I know take in July. The best part is all the traveling we do. It’s a quick, easy flight to most EU countries. The summers are beautiful, and there are a lot of fun traditions. Swedes love to celebrate. My husband comes from a really large family, which makes celebrations and holidays really fun. I have a really small family in the States, and I miss them dearly, but I travel back to NYC at least twice a year, and they visit me here. Plus, FaceTime calls really keep us connected.
MD: Where do you live in Sweden?
IJ: I live in the Lahäll neighborhood in a town called Täby, which is a northern suburb of Stockholm. By train, it’s less than 20 minutes to the center of the city. It’s a really nice neighborhood with lots of young families. We were looking for greener pastures when we moved to Sweden. We bought a house with a nice big yard. We have a cherry blossom tree, lots of berries and rose bushes, and my son has a cute wooden playhouse. There’s a nice little beach about 25 minutes from us and forests are easily accessible with trails for walks or biking. There are bike lanes everywhere, so it’s nice to take our bikes when the weather is nice around the neighborhood.
"The country is set up to raise children. The support and care of children are a priority, which I love."
MD: What languages are spoken there?
IJ: Swedish is the main language. English is learned at a very young age, so most Swedes I have encountered speak English too. They actually enjoy practicing and think it’s fun to speak to a native English speaker. It can become a problem since I’m learning Swedish.
MD: What are the main differences in eating habits between Sweden and the U.S.?
IJ: I think one of the main differences is that Swedes don’t dine out as often as in NYC, for instance. There is also not as much variety in cuisine as NYC. And they love their sweets. Fika is a big one, which is a coffee break with something sweet. Lördagsgodis is like a religion—it translates to "Saturday candy." Every Saturday, kids and adults are in the stores getting their candy from a wall that holds a variety of gummy candy and chocolates.
The reason for not dining out as often as New Yorkers is that food and alcohol are crazy expensive. Instead, Swedes are notorious for hosting dinner parties regularly, which I really love. They are fantastic hosts. There are more options now for dining out, but it seems the dinner-party tradition is still very strong.
MD: What does a Swedish child typically eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner?
IJ: My 4-year-old son eats yogurt with fruit for breakfast. For lunch, he has pasta with köttbullar (meatballs) and some cucumber, and then maybe rice, chicken, and cucumber for dinner. Snacks are typically knäckebröd, which is crisp flat bread with butter, or sliced apples with milk. Sometimes he has cucumber or a round bread with sliced cucumber on top.
MD: How do people discipline their children in Sweden?
IJ: They talk through it. I understand my child, and if he’s frustrated or melting down, I try to talk to him and comfort him. I’m not sure if it’s all the outdoor activity, but they (Swedish children) seem really content. There are strict laws protecting children, more so than in NYC, and I’ve never seen anyone speak harshly to a child or discipline a child.
MD: What are the table manners for Swedish children?
IJ: They are taught from an early age to wash their hands first, put a napkin on their lap, use a fork and a knife, and take their plate to the counter once they’re finished. At my son’s dagis (preschool), they sing a song before eating for fun.
MD: Is grazing allowed after dinner?
IJ: I don’t think so—at least not in our household. We eat dinner at 5:30 p.m. every evening, and then start the bedtime routine at 6:30 p.m. By 7 p.m., my little one is asleep.
MD: Are Swedish children encouraged to cook?
IJ: Absolutely. They learn fun things when they’re young, like baking gingerbread or helping with cinnamon buns and cardamon buns.
MD: How would you describe the upbringing of a Swedish child?
IJ: It’s the main reason we moved to Sweden. It’s safe and free from the fears one could have by living in a city like NYC. Nature and the connection and respect toward it are so strong. I appreciate not worrying about health insurance or saving a gazillion dollars for the university. It’s all taken care of here. We pay so much in taxes, but we really don’t mind because what we get in return is invaluable, in my opinion.
MD: How do Swedish children dress?
IJ: The Swedes have a saying that translates to “There’s no bad weather, only bad clothing.” This pretty much sums it up. My son has an entire outdoor wardrobe since he’s outside about six hours a day on average—rain, shine, or snow.
MD: How are Swedish children taught to greet others?
IJ: They are taught to introduce themselves and maybe shake hands if they want to. They can hug if they want to also. With my son, for instance, I let him do what he’s comfortable with, which is usually a high five. None of the greetings are forced, though, which I really love.
MD: What are Swedish schools like?
IJ: I only have experience with my son’s preschool. He’s outdoors about six hours a day, and if the weather is really nice, he’s outside most of the day. (He’s in school eight hours.) There’s lots of play and games; learning to interact with one another; walks to the forest; and learning about nature and the environment and sustainability.
Now when we walk around, if he sees a piece of trash, he picks it up to throw it in its proper bin. I have heard that Swedish education is much less demanding than in the States. Children start formally learning to read around 6 years old. I have to wait and see how it goes when he moves on from preschool.
MD: What are some of the things Swedish moms do differently with their newborns compared to the rest of the world?
IJ: I’m not so sure, since I had my son in NYC. I do know that they don’t swaddle here. I’m not sure why.
MD: Is breastfeeding encouraged?
IJ: Yes, breastfeeding is encouraged.
MD: How long is maternity leave?
IJ: It’s ridiculously generous. For each child, you get 480 days of parental leave, and you have up until the child is 7 years old to take it. These days are shared between both parents.
MD: Do you get paid during this time?
IJ: Yes, whether you are stay-at-home or employed, you get paid by the social service system, but it’s on a sliding scale and capped to a certain amount. It also depends on your salary or lack thereof: The higher your salary, the higher your parental payment.
MD: Are women encouraged to go back to work after having a baby?
IJ: Yes, very much so. Sweden is one of the most egalitarian countries in the world and encourages women to continue their careers. When a woman goes on maternity leave from a permanent position, even if for a year, her job or equivalent, by law, should still be there when she goes back to work. A parent (father or mother) can even work what they call 75% of the time by taking some parental leave and applying to your weekly schedule. This is my understanding of the system here.
MD: Do your children go to preschool, or do you have nannies?
IJ: No nannies. Sweden has preschool and generous parental leave. I’m sure you can get a babysitter for an evening out or to help out. We have never hired a nanny, and if we want to have a date night, we drop him off at his grandparents'. I’m not sure if there’s any guilt around having a nanny, but I don’t think it’s the norm here. I don’t know one person with a nanny here. In NYC, I knew plenty of mom friends with a nanny.
MD: What is healthcare like for children?
IJ: I think it’s amazing. In NYC, it was always so hectic to go to the doctor. Everything here is covered for children. It’s so easy. I also don’t have to remember to make appointments. It’s all taken care of. When he’s due for his yearly wellness check or dental or vaccines, we get a letter as a notice.
MD: How do most women choose to deliver their babies?
IJ: I think in a hospital. Most women will see a midwife for their prenatal and delivery. I think the only time you see an actual ob-gyn is if it’s a high-risk pregnancy.
MD: What are some of the things kids love to do in Sweden?
IJ: Normal kids stuff. Riding their bikes, going to the park, swimming, skiing in the winter, lots of winter sports here. Soccer is big here, too for the little ones.
MD: What is the most surprising thing about parenting in Sweden that most people might not know?
IJ: It seems like so many people are more aware than ever about Sweden, but I think the generous 480 days per child parental leave is a big one.