Here’s What The Swedes Get Right About Parenting That Americans Don’t

Here’s What The Swedes Get Right About Parenting That Americans Don’t


Editor’s note: The following excerpt is from Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink” by Katrina Alcorn. The book tells Alcorn’s personal story of managing her career, children, and marriage, and what she learned about “having it all.”

Available from Seal Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright 2013. pgs. 349-351

The poet William Blake said, “What is now proved was once only imagined.”

Let’s take a moment to imagine a world where more people are involved in the work of caring for children. And by people I mean, specifically, er . . . men. How could this one fact change our government policies, the dynamics of the workplace, and our relationships with each other? Recently I stumbled across a story in The New York Times by Katrin Bennhold that seemed to hold the answer. It described a quiet revolution that has been taking place in Sweden for the last two decades, affecting everything from the gender pay gap to workplace culture to relationships between parents and children. Here is the story in a nutshell:

Until quite recently, Sweden had many of the same problems with gender equality that we have in the United States; men and women were confined to traditional roles when it came to working and raising kids. Although the country offered more than a year of parental leave, mothers were traditionally the only ones who stayed home with the baby. Women made less money than men, and the 6 percent of fathers who did take time off were derided with a Swedish term that means “velvet dads” and stigmatized at work for being unmanly.

courtesy of Seal Press

In 1995, in what turned out to be a bureaucratic stroke of genius, the Swedish government created financial incentives for men to take paternity leave. If the father didn’t take time off, the family lost one month of subsidies. Suddenly it was like Who cares if they call me a “velvet dad”? I’m not giving up free money!

Soon it became the norm for dads to take off a month, two months, even longer. Men got a taste of what it was like to be the primary parent. They became more confident in their role at home, assuming those responsibilities traditionally left to the moms, such as clipping the children’s fingernails. Dads started craving more time with their kids. Today, eight in ten fathers in Sweden now take a third of the total thirteen months of leave.

Those early months are a critical time for establishing bonds. Studies show that when fathers spend time taking care of infants, they are more likely to become involved parents as their children get older.

As everyone got used to the idea that dads would take time off, the culture at work began to change, with flextime becoming more common. The pay gap between men and women started to close. One study showed a mother’s future earnings increased about 7 percent for every month the father took off.

And that’s not all. Divorce rates started to go down in Sweden, at a time when they were rising in other countries. For the couples who did divorce, shared custody became more common. As the Times story explained, a “new definition of masculinity” began to emerge: Birgitta Ohlsson, European affairs minister, put it this way: “Machos with dinosaur values don’t make the top-10 lists of attractive men in women’s magazines anymore.”

She continued, “Now men can have it all—a successful career and being a responsible daddy . . . It’s a new kind of manly. It’s more wholesome.”

This simple little change—giving dads incentives to take parental leave—had a profound effect on employees, employers, women, men, and families.

And lest you think this could happen only in a little Scandinavian country, Germany (population eighty-two million) decided to try a similar experiment in 2007. In just two years, the number of fathers taking parental leave jumped from 3 percent to more than 20 percent.

Here in the United States we have a long way to go, of course. Among other things, we seem to have a life-threatening allergy to taxes. Many Americans choke and turn red in the face at the very mention of the word, even though our taxes are historically low and lower compared with most developed countries. We don’t even have paid maternity leave for mothers. We scoff at comparisons with Sweden, presumably preferring the company of places like Papua New Guinea and Swaziland, which are among the few countries that do not provide some type of national paid parental leave. And the last few decades of “family values” have done nothing to create economic stability for families.

But the Swedish revolution gave me hope that change is possible, and solutions to these seemingly intractable problems may not be nearly as complicated as we expect. However we do it—whether it’s through government incentives or some other type of intervention—we need dads to get more actively involved as parents.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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