Friday, 16 August 2013

Lehman Sisters and Swedish playgrounds

One of the reasons for the international fascination with Swedish male urination is the idea that Swedish men are becoming emasculated by doing a lot of childcare. They're not. Frankly, I'm more worried on the emasculation front by the testicle-eating fish who ply the ├śresund. (There's also a worry about Islamisation, but the open air swimming pools we went to in Stockholm showed no signs of being policed by Wahhabis - and they were also free of nightmare fish.)

The more interesting question is this: what is the effect of male childcare on Scandinavian children? Think of the famous comment, adopted by Harriet Harman, that the financial crisis could have been avoided if more women had been in charge: "Lehman Sisters" instead of "Lehman Brothers". We see that sort of idea a lot. But what about the other way round? What happens when nursing, midwifery, nail bars, childcare, etc etc are full of men?

Some highly speculative ideas on childcare are set out below based on recent data gathering in Sweden.

There are lots of different ways of looking after small children and it is plausible to assume that men and women will (by and large, on average, other things being equal) tend to do it differently. Obviously, looking after small children is incompatible with a number of stereotypical male activities (heavy drinking, going to strip clubs, wanton violence). But it's equally incompatible with a number of stereotypical female activities (having a long bubble bath illuminated by candles, trying on lots of clothes in a shop's changing room, getting your hair done). None of these activities is a big part of any normal parent's life.

Here is the relevant data on male childcare compared with female childcare, taken from my in-depth study of Swedish playgrounds.

(A brief word on methodology. We only saw Stockholm and we weren't there for very long. However, we were not staying in a hotel or anywhere particularly tourist-y. We were in a pretty average residential kind of area, a few T-bana stops from the centre of town. There were some friendly local drunks who sat on the garden walls on our way to the station, a good convenience shop on the corner of the block and a cool area popular with hipsters a short walk away. It was just like a similar part of London. And we saw quite a few playgrounds, including ones well away from where we were staying.)

To start with, there is not a lot of difference. Swedish playgrounds are much the same as British ones. But there are some differences.

First, there are more men in the playgrounds. Weekdays see about the same number of Swedish men in a playground as weekends do in London. (We were there in July. Perhaps it was not a representative time.)

Second, they don't have that bouncy concrete on the ground. British playgrounds tend to have bouncy concrete or else wood-chip or ersatz wood-chip under any equipment that a child can fall off. Swedish ones have a fine gravel (think boulodrome rather than driveway).

Third, they are more likely to have random rocks for climbing on.

Fourth, they are more likely to have pedal-propelled roundabouts.

Fifth, the men push their children very high on the swings. This happens in England too, but it was particularly notable in Sweden. Our children now use the phrase "a Swedish push" (no sniggering) to mean being pushed very high on a swing, normally high enough that the chain goes slack and one starts to worry quite how bouncy the concrete (or gravel) is.

Sixth, the swings are very likely to be tyre swings. I have no idea why. I always found tyre swings unsatisfactory as a child - are you meant to sit on the front or the back? Either is suboptimal for swinging, and only a grossly obese child can comfortably fit the middle of a tyre. Also, a fair proportion of Swedish swings have a pointless miniscule tyre suspended directly below the main one. What is that for? Elves?

So, leaving aside the mystery of tyre swings, you can see a picture of Swedish childcare being more physically vigorous, tougher and more injury-prone than the English equivalent. It's not surprising: you're not to going to breed mummy's boys if all the mummies are out at work.

It's a plausible theory, but I have to mention another data-point that complicates the picture. Small children walk slowly and not very far. There are two ways of dealing with this (other than putting up with it). First, use your power to move them (buggy or carrying). Second, get a machine which increases their mobility. That normally means a scooter, in the case of very small children. It seems that buggies, especially the big, modern, robust ones, are comparatively more popular in Sweden, while scooters and smaller, lighter buggies are comparatively more popular in England. Again, that data-point fits the male childcare model: men tend to be physically stronger and are happier to push big buggies around longer (and carry bigger children on their shoulders for longer). You can even argue that men might prefer the additional control and authority gained from using a buggy. But in any case, the effect is that while children are on the streets getting to the playground, they are getting more exercise and having more independence under a female childcare model than a male one. So it's not all bad news for English children.

Finally, a thought which has just struck me: tyre swings fit with preferring buggies to scooters - tyre swings are easier for parents (fathers) to push but harder for children to swing themselves on. It's another male physical/control thing.

So there you have it, a consolidated theory of gendered childcare which explains all of the data points - except the tiny tyres. I'll keep thinking about that one.

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