The Scandinavian Social Experiment

How rules and reality play out in fathers’ lives

Posted Nov 14, 2012

Of all the evolutionary and cultural shifts in fatherhood, some of the most interesting social experiments have been conducted in Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. In a recent book chapter, Linda Haas and C. Philip Hwang provide an overview of the laws and realities of Scandinavian fatherhood. While new family and father-related mandates were put in place beginning in the 1970s, they continue to change, and have variably coincided with changes in actual behavior.

The laws are designed to foster dual earner/caregiver families and involved fathering. The relatively firm national and individual financial footing in these countries has made some of these policies viable. Childcare is subsidized, and a small proportion of adults live below the poverty line. While formal marriage has waned, resulting in about half of children born into marital unions, around 90 percent of children are initially raised in households containing both parents. More and more parents are cohabitating without tying a marital knot. They are also having about two children, a higher rate of fertility than most of Europe.

In 1974, Sweden was the first country to allow fathers to use parental leave. By 1993, Norway had granted four weeks of paternal leave, and by 2011 that had jumped to twelve weeks. Paternal leave is more likely to be used by better educated, wealthier, native-born men. Other kinds of parental buffers are provided. As an example, fathers or mothers can stay home with a sick child, with a limited number of such days paid for in Sweden and Norway and the public sector in Denmark. In the event of parents’ splitting, rules govern custody and visitation. The law is designed to privilege the child’s interests rather than, as had been the case, the mother’s; the law provides for normative joint custody.

How do the laws interface with reality? As Haas and Hwang describe, changes in law in some cases have parallels in behavior, but in other cases there remains a gap between rules and reality.

In the past several decades, Scandinavian fathers have increased the amount of time they spend in childcare, even if the amount of time is lower than mothers. In Sweden, but not Norway, men take on a greater proportion of childcare duties when the child’s mother works full-time. More and more men are taking advantage of paternal leave, although this is more likely to be utilized for fathers working in the public than private sector. A small percentage of men increase their work hours after having a child (as might be expected if privileging their breadwinning). Overall, however, relatively few fathers work long hours; in Norway, 15 percent of fathers worked more than 50 hours weekly, compared with 3 percent of mothers. The longer hours and slightly higher pay of fathers’ jobs lead to men providing a higher share of family income, but especially in the early aftermath of having had a child. After parental separation, a large majority of children live with mothers rather than fathers, with shared residential custody—around 25 percent—highest in Sweden.

As these patterns suggest, some aspects of a sexual division of labor remain in place, “with fathers more responsible for paid work and breadwinning and mothers more responsible for childcare. Women’s roles have changed more than men’s roles; paid work is no longer optional for women, but shared involvement in childcare is still optional for men.” (p. 323) Additionally, “While Swedes generally support the goal of equal parenthood, individual parents—responding to the reality of men’s and women’s unequal labor force participation—seem ambivalent about equality, and seldom aspire toward this ideal in their own families…” (p. 324) The upshot of this Scandinavian snapshot is that sex-differentiated parenting and work patterns remain in place, even if they have diminished in recent decades, partly through explicit social engineering.


Haas, L. L., & Hwang, C. P. (2013). Fatherhood and social policy in Scandinavia. In D. W. Shwalb, B. J. Shwalb, & M. E. Lamb (Eds.), Fathers in Cultural Context, (pp. 303-331). New York: Routledge.

About the Authors

Peter B. Gray, Ph.D., is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He is the co-author of Fatherhood.

Kermyt G. Anderson, Ph.D.

Kermyt G. Anderson, Ph.D., is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Oklahoma. He is the co-author of Fatherhood.

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