Mom’s at work? Sweden’s solution is round-the-clock preschools

Sweden may want to consider coining the term postschool.
Sweden may want to consider coining the term postschool.
Image: AP Photo
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The Swedish welfare system is often derided as a ”nanny state,” but now the Swedish state is actually getting into the nanny business. Starting this year a $16.3 million grant will fund nighttime and weekend child care.

Already 160 municipalities across Sweden offer this extended care, 30 more than in 2011, while the number of Swedish kids in such care has risen by about 50% since 2005 (Swedish).

This is a natural extension of the Swedish “educare” system, which combines child care and preschool, is a primary way to support women in the workplace, with preschools are administered by the Minister for Gender Equality (yes, Sweden has one), rather than the Minister of Education.

Expanding “inconvenient time” child care helps parents with the exact kind of jobs that are growing in this globalized economy—service work, especially at places like hospitals or nursing homes or hotels. It is a realistic response, though perhaps it also an unfortunate reflection of our times, when so many parents have to take jobs with awkward shifts and don’t have the family or community support, or the financial means, to keep their kids at home.

Now, 94% of Swedish children between the ages of 3 and 5 attend preschool (kindergarten starts in Sweden at the age of 6). Sweden might have the most generous parental leave in the world—480 days that can be spread out until a child is 8—and state preschools do not generally take children younger than 12 months old. But after the leave is over, it’s over, and all the kids head off to preschool.

As Miriam Norfors, the political advisor to Minister for Gender Equality, wrote in the New York Times:

Preschools thus have dual functions: to enable parents to combine parenthood with work or studies and to encourage children’s development and learning.

I’ve lived in Sweden for almost seven years now, and I stayed at home on extended paid paternity leave with both my kids. I would have preferred to stay home longer, until they were three, but that was not a financial option. And it is also not comfortable to feel a subtle yet universal social pressure to conform to the system. Even if I have the right to work part-time as a parent of small children and get—from an American perspective—a ridiculously large amount of vacation days, the lack of flexibility can be grating.

But I’m not struggling financially, and I have a flexible job with great hours. Our municipal preschool is also incredible, with excellent teachers and a little forest for a yard. Indeed, the real problem is structural, and as long as the economy keeps spinning faster and on a more global scale, and until there is some sort of real gender equality, the need for flexible child care solutions will continue to grow, and the Swedish state will get ever deeper into the nanny business.

This is a worldwide trend, addressed by governments or care providers from Australia to India to Canada, driven by the mass entrance of women into the workforce and the rise of the service economy. In the US, 40% of the workforce now works nonstandard hours, and those hours are getting more and more irregular. Families are also changing, with only about one in five families in both Sweden (pdf, 21) and the US including the “traditional” two parents and a child or children.

The benefits of preschool—especially universal preschool—are clear, illustrated by this infographic from The Nation: preschool is a route out of poverty, it gets women in the workforce, and it reduces financial burdens on the working poor.  It also can help mitigate developmental differences that come from growing up in poverty, which means better qualified workers in the long run.

As Norfors summed this up when she wrote:

Without preschools, we would not have among the highest female and maternal employment rates in the European Union, or the lowest levels of child poverty.

This is absolutely true, and it is a huge improvement on the American system, which makes families—especially those less well off—scramble at best and dump their kids in dangerous child care at worst. But the Swedish policies also shine a bright, pragmatic light on the price that young children and their parents are paying all over the globe as work speeds up, even in the midst of a global slowdown.