How to raise a Viking: Lessons in parenting from the Nordic countries

BY Helen Russell

20th Feb 2024 Life

3 min read

How to raise a Viking: Lessons in parenting from the Nordic countries
In this extract from her new book How To Raise A Viking, journalist and author Helen Russell wonders if we could learn a thing or two from parents in the Nordic countries
Parenting Danishly is strangely anachronistic at times. Like an Enid Blyton book without the bigotry. And mini-Vikings are different from children back home. They eat differently. They learn differently. They play, dress, even sleep differently. They sing (All The Time), run, jump, climb, fall and get up again, out in nature, for hours a day. It’s cold and wet and uncomfortable—often. But they cope. 
"In Denmark, children play outdoors, schools have no gates, and babies are left to nap outside in their prams"
In Denmark, children play outdoors, schools have no gates, and babies are left to nap outside in their prams. Because 79 per cent of Danes trust most people, a statistic I found extraordinary (I don’t trust 79 per cent of my immediate family…). Okay, so Denmark is a small country of just 5.8 million people. But that’s about the size of south London, and I didn’t trust everyone there, either. 
In the UK and the US, levels of trust have fallen dramatically in the past 60 years, from around 60 per cent to 30 per cent. I grew up in the 1980s and 1990s with the full force of the "stranger danger" campaign. Along with generations of schoolchildren, we were taught to trust less—with annual police talks on the perils of people we didn’t know. My American friends had McGruff, a hard-boiled crime dog with a gravelly voice who warned of danger at every turn. To be a child in the 1980s was to be acutely aware that you could be done for on any given day. But in the Nordic countries? Less so. 

Are Nordic countries happier?

Trust in Denmark has always been high, and has actually been on the rise by a few per cent in recent years. Children are taught that the world is an essentially good place and most people are not out to get them. Which is madness, delusional, liberating. "If you trust the people around you, you can be more relaxed," as my oldest Viking friend puts it. She’s a formidable flaxen-haired Nordic goddess with three children who "gets things done", apparently effortlessly, and is surprised when others (ie, "me") don’t. But she has a heart of pure Viking gold and has been helping me decode the Danish way ever since our arrival. And this much I learned early on: Vikings typically trust that children will figure things out, learn how to use their bodies, and manage their surroundings. Internationals always joke that there is no such thing as health and safety for Nordics (contrary to what Brexiteers would have us believe about Europe). Instead, there are lit candles everywhere, four-year-old children saw wood, and six-year-olds walk the family dog or bike to school by themselves. As my veteran Viking friend says: "Our children grow up free—because they trust."
This trust seems to be a self-fulfilling prophecy: Denmark is the least corrupt country in the world and even politicians, notoriously untrusted in most countries, enjoy a relatively good reputation. Nordic countries regularly top the UNICEF rankings in terms of happiness, education and equality. And children in Nordic countries generally have the highest rates of wellbeing, globally. 
"This trust seems to be a self-fulfilling prophecy"
By contrast, youngsters in the UK and US are more likely to suffer from mental ill health than in almost any other rich country, according to UNICEF. A report from the Children’s Society shows that the number of UK children who are unhappy with their lives continues to rise. In the US, a third of all teenagers now have symptoms that meet the criteria for an anxiety disorder, according to Harvard data.
The US and UK models aren’t working. So, what are Vikings doing differently? What are the secrets to Viking parenting? And what can the rest of us learn from them? From pregnancy and birth to toddlerhood and school, I want to find out what it’s like for children and their caregivers in Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Iceland and Finland.
How to Raise a Viking High-Res
Extracted from How to Raise a Viking by Helen Russell (4th Estate, £16.99)
Cover image © Simon Meyer
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