Children in Sweden
Strong rights and school for all. Here are 10 aspects of children's lives in Sweden.
Ever since 1842, every child in Sweden has had the right to go to school, by law. Today there are ten years of compulsory schooling, divided into four stages: förskoleklass (‘pre-school year’, year 0), lågstadiet (years 1–3), mellanstadiet (years 4–6) and högstadiet (years 7–9). Most children then go on to the optional gymnasium (upper secondary school, or the equivalent of American high school – years 10–12) and graduate when they are 18–19.
School is fully tax-subsidised, with the exception of nursery schools, which are partly funded by the government.
Children who are between 6 and 13 years old are offered out-of-school care before and after school hours. Compulsory education also includes sameskolor (Sami schools) for children of the indigenous Sami people.
Did you know that…
At the beginning of the 1970s, children made up 25 per cent of the Swedish population – today that figure has decreased to 21 per cent.
The school year
The Swedish school year runs from August to June, with an autumn break in October, a Christmas holiday, a winter break in February–March and an Easter holiday.
In mid-August, the start of the school year begins and all children move up a grade. More than half of Sweden is woodland, and it’s popular to go mushroom and berry picking at this time of year.
In late October/early November, children have a week off school. On 31 October, Halloween – a new tradition in Sweden – is celebrated with fancy dress and pumpkins. The next day, All Saints' Day, many people light candles at family graves and in memorial parks.
On 13 December Swedes celebrate Lucia. In every school and daycare there is a Lucia procession. Dressed in white and wearing a crown of candles, a girl chosen to be Lucia leads a choir singing carols.
School ends just before Christmas Eve (24 December) and stays shut until the beginning of January.
The spring term starts in the second week of January. In late February or early March there’s a week-long winter sports break. Many families head to the mountains in the north of Sweden for cross-country or downhill skiing and snowboarding. With many lakes frozen over, ice-skating is a popular pastime.
In March or April school children have another week off for Easter. Depending on where you are in Sweden, this means either enjoying the first signs of spring, or the last of the snow.
The summer holiday is 8–10 weeks long and starts mid-June. Some families go abroad, some go and stay in their country cottages and others stay at home. Some children spend time at summer camp.
For most children summer definitely means swimming in a lake or the sea. There are thousands of lakes and Sweden’s coastline is 2,700 kilometers long. The Swedish school curriculum says that when children finish sixth grade (i.e. aged 12/13), they must be able to swim 200 metres – 50 of these on their back – and must be able to cope with emergencies in the water.
Around one-fifth of Sweden’s 10 million inhabitants are under 18. Swedish law ensures that children are well protected and their rights are defended.
The Ombudsman for Children is a government agency that protects children’s rights and looks after their interests. It monitors how the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child is complied with in society. It pushes for its implementation in Sweden's municipalities, regional councils and government agencies.
Sweden was one of the first countries to sign the UN Convention and incorporated it into Swedish law in 2020.
Illegal to hit children
In 1979 Sweden made it illegal to hit children, both at home and in school – as the first country in the world.
Until the 1960s, nine out of ten preschool children in Sweden were spanked at home. In the 1970s about half of children were physically punished. In the 1980s – after the introduction of the new law – only a third of children were spanked, and in the 1990s that number had shrunk to about a fifth, according to surveys quoted in The Lancet medical journal.
Swedish law now explicitly states that parents cannot use any form of violence or other humiliating treatment as part of bringing up their children. Corporal punishment of a child is also a criminal offence according to the Swedish Penal Code.
Sweden’s neighbours Finland and Norway enacted similar laws in 1983 and 1987. Austria followed in 1989. Then the pace picked up, and now more than 60 countries have prohibited all corporal punishment of children.
Albania (2010), Andorra (2014), Argentina (2014), Austria (1989), Benin (2015), Bolivia (2014), Brazil (2014), Bulgaria (2000), Cabo Verde (2013), Republic of Congo (2010), Costa Rica (2008), Croatia (1999), Cyprus (1994), Denmark (1997), Estonia (2014), Finland (1983), France (2019), Georgia (2019), Germany (2000), Greece (2006), Guinea (2020), Honduras (2013), Hungary (2004), Iceland (2003), Ireland (2015), Israel (2000), Japan (2020), Kenya (2010), Republic of Korea (2021), Republic of Kosovo (2019), Latvia (1998), Liechtenstein (2008), Lithuania (2017), Luxembourg (2008), North Macedonia (2013), Malta (2014), Republic of Moldova (2008), Mongolia (2016), Montenegro (2016), Nepal (2018), the Netherlands (2007), New Zealand (2007), Nicaragua (2014), Norway (1987), Paraguay (2016), Peru (2015), Poland (2010), Portugal (2007), Romania (2004), San Marino (2014), Seychelles (2020), Slovenia (2016), South Africa (2019), South Sudan (2011), Spain (2007), Sweden (1979), Togo (2007), Tunisia (2010), Turkmenistan (2002), Ukraine (2003), Uruguay (2007), Venezuela (2007)
3. Help and support
There are many organisations that young people in Sweden can turn to if they need help. Children’s Rights in Society (BRIS, link in Swedish) offers support services such as telephone helplines, chat and email counselling.
Friends is an organisation dedicated to stamping out bullying, mainly in schools but also outside – during organised sports activities, for example.
Save the Children Sweden (Rädda barnen, link in Swedish) is another organisation that defends the rights of children.
4. Family life
Most children in Sweden start off living with their mother and father, who may or may not be married and tend to have one or two children on average. But separation is not unusual. Today seven out of ten children under 18 live with both their birth parents, while about two in ten live with a single mother or father and nearly one in ten with a stepfather or stepmother.
About one in four children in Sweden has a family with roots in another country.
Around 60 per cent of children live in detached houses or row houses, the rest in flats.
Sweden is quite sparsely populated, with only 24.5 people per square kilometre. (The EU average is more than 100 per square kilometre.) This means that many people have nature on their doorstep, and enjoying it is a big part of growing up. The right of public access allows everyone to explore the countryside freely.
5. Working parents
Most children have a working mother, based on the fact that 80 per cent of women between 20 and 64 in Sweden are employed. The figure for men between 20 and 64 is 85 per cent, so most children also have fathers with jobs.
Parents get 480 days of paid parental leave per child to share between them. These days must be claimed before the child turns eight or finishes the first year in school. Most parental leave is taken by mothers, but fathers are spending an increasing amount of time at home with their children. Men now claim about 30 per cent of all parental leave taken.
6. Hobbies and pastimes
Like most children, Swedish children enjoy listening to music and hanging out with friends. They are also encouraged to focus on their interests. Singing and playing a musical instrument are popular extra-curricular activities.
Many take up sport. Among the most popular sports are football (soccer), ice hockey and floorball. Horseriding is also a big sport among girls. Lately, individual sports like gymnastics have seen a high growth – most likely thanks to a quickly growing number of parkour clubs, which are included in this category.
Many clubs and associations – such as the Guides and Scouts of Sweden – arrange outdoor activities for children. Skogsmulle (link in Swedish), for example, is a type of nature school named after a fictional character who was brought up in the woods. The organisation has helped about 2 million children to appreciate and care for nature.
7. Social media and gaming
Young Swedes are avid internet users. Among 12- to 15-year-olds, 50 per cent use the internet at least three hours on a normal weekday. In 2020, 75 per cent used social media on a daily basis, with Snapchat being the most popular, followed by Instagram and Tiktok.
Watching video clips on YouTube is one of the most common pastimes. About 70 per cent of 13- to 16-year-olds watch videos every day.
Gaming is also popular, especially among 9- to 12-year-olds, where around 80 per cent claim to play video games sometimes. Boys play for longer and more often than girls.
Swedish directors making movies for young people do not shy away from difficult subjects. Beyond dreams (Dröm vidare, 2017) by Rojda Sekersöz is an honest account about what it can be like to grow up. Mirja has served her first prison sentence for a failed robbery. After prison, she has to get a job. She’s trying to find her way, being torn between her sick mother and her old gang, who has always been her real family.
In Girls Lost (Pojkarna, 2016) by Alexandra-Therese Keining, three 14-year-old girls discover that they can transform themselves into boys by drinking nectar from a strange flower. The film offers a new take on teenage anxiety.
Monky (2017) tells the story of 11-year-old Frank and his secret friendship with a monkey that shows up in his family’s backyard one night after tragedy strikes. It’s soon clear that this is no ordinary animal and in the search for answers, Frank and his family embarks on a journey from a small Swedish village to the deep jungles of Thailand.
The Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award
The annual ALMA prize is the biggest children’s book prize in the world, worth SEK 5 million. It honours the Swedish children's book writer Astrid Lindgren and promotes every child’s right to great stories.
It's impossible to talk about Swedish children's books without talking about Astrid Lindgren — creator of Pippi Longstocking, Emil, Karlsson-on-the-Roof and numerous other characters. Translated into more than 100 languages, about 165 million of her books have been sold globally.
Martin Widmark’s and Helena Willis’s series about Jerry-Maya Detective Agency (LasseMajas detektivbyrå) has been translated into around 20 languages. Their books have become bestsellers and many of them have been turned into films.
Gunilla Bergström wanted to write about real life, and created a little boy, Alfie Atkins (Alfons Åberg), as her main character. She describes the stories as mini-dramas on the psychological level. Making mischief, being frightened of ghosts, missing a friend… They cover topics any child can relate to. The series includes 26 titles so far, published in around 30 languages.
Among younger children, Sven Nordqvist’s books about Pettsson and Findus and Jujja and Tomas Wieslander’s books about the dancing cow Mamma Moo (Mamma Mu) – who wants to try everything that humans do – are some widely read books.
Also popular are picture books by illustrators and writers such as Stina Wirsén, Pija Lindenbaum and Lena Andersson.
Swedish schools are working with a variety of organisations to encourage young people’s interest in technology and entrepreneurship.
The youth programme Finn upp (‘invent’) uses a teaching method designed to awaken a desire for knowledge in school children. The programme encourages them to invent things to help them learn. Finn upp arranges a competition for young inventors aged 12 to 15 every year, an event that aims to inspire a new generation of inventors, innovators and entrepreneurs, and release the power of fresh ideas. Finn upp was founded in 1979 by the Swedish Society of Engineers (Ingenjörsamfundet).
The non-profit association Snilleblixtarna (‘the flashes of genius’, link in Swedish) is geared to children from pre-school age to sixth grade. The aim is to encourage children’s interest in technology, the natural sciences and entrepreneurship. Snilleblixtarna provides teachers and educators with tools and a working model to stimulate children’s curiosity, desire to learn and ability to think critically.