Sweden’s ”kidnapping” of muslim children

A 2009 review of the thirty years since the legislation was introduced [in Sweden] showed that there has been a consistent decline in the use of physical punishment and the number of adults who are in favour of it. In the 1970s, around half of children were smacked regularly; this fell to around a third in the 1980s, and just a few per cent after 2000.
Modig, C. (2009), Never Violence, cited here

I am a psychologist in Stockholm, Sweden. A while ago I was contacted by the TV-channel Al Jazeera to be interviewed about the ”removal” of children from muslim families. I tried to inquiry about the approach of the producers and decided to decline because I felt that they did not really intend to cover the whole complexity of the subject. So here I want to write a few of my thoughts about it.

Allegations of selling children etc

Apparently there are a number of exaggerated, sensationalist accounts in Arab media. One such claim seems to be that officials in Sweden kidnap muslim children in order to sell them and pocket the money themselves. Here I would like to say that the Swedish bureaucratic system have many shortcomings. But we rank five on Transparency Internationals corruption index. There are articles in the newspapers every week about all sorts of wrongdoings of government and bureaucracy. Including many stories about scandals and problems within the social authorities. And this is a complaint that I have really never heard of.

Even though we have a safe position as one of the least corrupt countries in the world, it sure happens once in a while that officials take money for their own from governmental undertakings, but it is still very much the exception that proves the rule. And I would think that Sweden is also a rich country that is very oriented towards the safety and care for children. For someone to pay money for a child that has been stolen by the social authorities seems quite far-fetched.

Actually there is right now a bit of a scandal going on where it has been discovered that some of the children that has been adopted from poorer countries, were in fact stolen from their families. It is extremely discouraging that this happened, but at least Swedish society takes it seriously and we are presently trying to investigate the details and reunite the children with their biological parents.

So is there a real problem somewhere in this story?

At the same time I would like to point out that Sweden is very proud of our history of abolishing corporal punishment. The research that I have seen show that corporal punishment has only negative consequences. Since we abolished corporal punishment in 1979, it has become a strong value in our society that no child deserves to be beaten in their home and we also feel that the government and the social services has a responsibility of stopping this.

The subject of corporal punishment seems to me to be the most common denominator in the cases where there is a clash between social services and families from Arab countries. This is really a very typical example of a cultural clash. Sweden comes with very strong values of protection of the child. And with a strong belief in the power or a strong society to correct the wrongs of misinformed individuals. And on the other hand I believe Arab families come with a much stronger value on the sanctuity of the family. And also strongly valuing discipline among children. I believe the word ”obey” would seem to be often regarded as a good thing in Arab families. Children are expected to obey, otherwise there is a problem somewhere. Whereas ”obey” in Swedish is seen more like a problem. We see parenting more like an ongoing process of the child trying things, and the parent guiding continously. Obeying, punishment and discipline are not the main frames of reference here. We more feel that if the child get to explore the world, and the parents keeps a close eye, and guides the child when needed, this will create a relaxed environment, with maximum opportunities for learning and growth.

Astrid Lindgrens book have become synonymous with the Swedish parenting ideal. Kids that are allowed to explore the world freely, roam, and where adults are either not so present, or they stand by and give unconditional love to the main character. Emil of Lönneberga and his relationship to the farmhand Alfred springs into my mind writing this. Emils father who tries to discipline Emil is shown mainly as a comic and tragic figure. Whereas with Alfred there is no disciplining going on at all, just a very friendly and warm-hearted relationship.

On this blog I have been a proponent of a parenting approach that is centered around understanding the child and nurturing it with play and emotional presence.

But I understand that this absolutely does not mean that Arab and Muslim parents are coldhearted and unloving. On the contrary, of course there can be just as much love and nurturing in a more traditional Arab family. It might look a bit different, but the basics are the same.

It is here that this subject becomes complex and difficult. What happens when the Swedish parenting culture meets a family from an Arab country? If an immigrant child comes to school after a conflict with their parents and say that they just recieved a cuff from their parents, and that she is afraid and angry?

I have been working for years in Child and Adolescent psychiatry, which often collaborate with social services when there is a problem of some kind.

Long story short: I think that the problem is that if you hit your child, many swedish people who work with kids, teachers and social workers, tend to think that then you have basically forsaken your right to be a parent. Not everyone think the same, but the tendency is to feel that when there is violence against a child, a line has been crossed and society needs to step in and protect that child.

I would guess that especially younger social workers today have a more flexible view of these things, and they are making attempts at working more hand-in-hand with all parents. Not to immediatly jump to the conclusion that the child has to be taken from its family. But we do have this very negative view of violence that is deeply rooted in our culture and it seems to me that this is probably a big chunk of the problem that is reflected in all these conflicts between parents and social security agencies.

And of course as a parenting blogger and Swedish person, I feel that the Swedish position makes a lot of sense. But at the same time I also know that traditional cultures that put more value on the family and authority and discipline, also have lots of positive things that Swedish culture lacks. Above all it is more associated with a traditional, agrarian society. Life was often difficult indeed one hundred years ago when most of us lived on the countryside toiling with agriculture. For adults, children and families. Beating of children was common in those times.

It is in this area that I think we should be able to have very interesting discussions. Everyone involved in this problem area need to do their best to have an open and flexible attitude, and do their best to understand the things that feel difficult to understand. We need to engage more in discussions, talks and learning, instead of more extreme acts of violence and taking kids from their parents. And we need to accept that we can strive towards perfection, but neither families nor social services will always be as good as we would like them to be.

So next time a TV-team from the Arab world comes to Sweden or other Nordic countries to investigate what’s going on with our social security agencies: Why not invite parenting experts and researchers from different camps to discuss parenting, family and social services?
Why not attempt to make the different cultures understand each other better?
Can we highlight ways in which Swedish social services misunderstand and overreact to Arab families?
What can Arab audiences learn from the Swedish view on parenting?
And what can Swedish and Nordic people learn from the way Arab people think about family and parenting?
How can we make way for this discussion where these cultures that look so different, can meet and understand each other better?

Note 1: I really think Swedish_lad on Reddit summarised the situation very well, my thoughts here are inspired of his well-written text.
Note 2: When I try to describe the Swedish way of seeing these things, I absolute do not want to make a philosophical claim that our way is superior. There is research about the issues with physical punishment. And there is also within anthropology very interesting attempts at discussing different parenting practices. I believe that it should be possible of making a more deep analysis which both accomodates to research findings, and respect for the integrity of different cultures around the world. This is, though, outside the scope of this posting.