Twirling in skirts and gold glitter shoes? Raising her children in Sweden has prompted Harriet Cobbold Hielte to question many of her ingrained English views on gender stereotypes and raising a boy. Could we all learn something from the less rigid Swedish approach?
It took me months to work out whether one of the children in my son’s Swedish nursery class was a boy or a girl. The child had long blond curls like a princess. Or was it the Angel Gabriel? The child wore a black t-shirt… with a pink necklace printed on. Flowery leggings were worn one day, carpenter jeans the next. And then there was the unisex name, Vim-Vike. There was another cherubic child who grabbed a tutu, heels and Mrs T handbag the moment he arrived each day but his name was Alexander so things were simpler.
I’m an English mother bringing up my children in Sweden. A country where many kids, regardless of sex, are dressed in 70s prints or brightly coloured stripes. Where a word was created to combine he and she to make a gender neutral pronoun, where pre-schools can have a ‘gender’ certificate, doll houses are painted blue and my four year old daughter’s Montessori teacher weeps with frustration when the children insist on using the old-fashioned term ‘doll corner’ for the part of the classroom where there is a toy kitchen.
Sweden is also the country where parental leave is shared: there are two months that can only be taken by the father. When it’s time for the mother to go back to work the ‘latte pappa’ takes over. You see him in cafés, hair perfectly styled, one year old sucking contentedly on a spoon on his lap, while he chats with the other latte pappas and wonders why his wife made such a big deal of being at home with a baby.
And I mocked all of this because I’m English and come from a family where men are expected to play rugby and even if your leg were to be knocked off you would play on.
Only these days I keep a little quiet, because I have a son who is fascinated by cars and dinosaurs and space, who roams through the woods looking for the perfect stick but also likes to go through my jewellery drawer. A boy who longs for fairy castles and flying ponies from Playmobil as well as wanting their police station; who casts covetous glances at his sister’s colourful wardrobe and stares mournfully at her as she plays with her stash of hairclips and flaunts her ponytail. And just occasionally he puts on a dress and twirls until he falls over.
I spoke to a friend in England recently who was told off by her sister for posting a photo on Facebook of her three year old son wearing a necklace. Meanwhile the sales assistant in a French children’s shop in London explained to me on a recent visit how she had to move the baby boy clothes to the girl’s section as her customers thought the pale colours and Peter Pan collars too feminine for their infant sons.
On a recent trip home, my otherwise exemplarily modern brother couldn’t resist a jibe when he saw my six year old son’s hair has grown from monk (the only style I can cut) to medieval page. He tried to make up for this by rugby tackling his nephew, presumably in the hope that, though the child might look like a girl, he’ll learn to tackle like a man.
So while my children’s Swedish teachers might come across too earnest, I like the fact that they are trying to form their pupils into tolerant beings. In the early years there is less focus on learning to read or write than there is learning to look at each other through ‘friend eyes’.
My son doesn’t wear a dress to school but his gold glitter shoes and purple and gold cardigan are greatly admired by his friends and teacher. I too have become more earnest, and when my daughter mentioned ‘girl Lego’ and ‘boy Lego’ the other day, I instinctively reacted as if she’d quoted from the BNP manifesto.
The Swedish families we know have a love of the outdoors and children are encouraged outside as much as possible, whatever the weather, preferably somewhere with trees and grass. And so they are sent to school with lots of spare clothes and tough rain and snowsuits. In these clothes the girls end up making mudpies, climbing trees and building dens as much as the boys. In a traditional playground, wearing school uniform, as is often the case in England, it is much more likely that games are played along gender lines.
Sport, with the exception of PE, is played outside school hours and though this might increase the load on the parental taxi service it does mean that the child chooses what she or he is interested in, not what the school deems appropriate.
This is a generalisation, of course, but I do feel the English are more rigid about gender stereotypes than Swedes, which is odd for a country of panto and Grayson Perry. In England, if your son has long hair you’re a hippy, a North London media type or someone yearning for a daughter.
So my heart sinks when we go somewhere smart with my children, for even in the plainest of dresses my daughter will be admired and praised while my darling boy’s face drops when no one comments on his smart new jacket that is just like his Pappa’s or the shiny black shoes that make a clippety-clop sound.
And he can’t really win because if he’s dressed smartly people assume it’s my doing while if he was adorned in hair clips and wearing a tutu, as is his want, this would be politely ignored as if he were the local drunk singing in the corner of the pub with his trousers falling down.
To me he is a fully rounded human being and I feel that Sweden is working very hard to say that this is ok. So he will have to make do with swirling along Swedish pavements in his Elsa dress. And because I’m English, if anyone looks askance at his half ponytail I’ll just say he’s channelling Zlatan Ibrahmovic.Harriet Cobbold Hielte is a writer and editor and has two children, a boy, 6 and a girl, 3. She lives in Gothenburg, Sweden. She likes to read, go to the theatre and travel (as long as her children can come too…) She loves London, Sunday newspapers, books and the Swedish west coast. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @Bobosvensk.