I am an American raising four kids between the ages of 6 and 13 here in Finland, with their Finnish father. From what you see about all things Nordic in the news lately, you would be forgiven for wondering if the answers to all problems can simply be divined from the billowing steam of the right sauna. Let me be clear, I am more than grateful for the low crime rates, near gender equality, amazing educational opportunities, universal health care, the generally tolerant and multilingual people, not to mention the ridiculously clean air and endless forests. I really am.
But I have to be honest: The attitude towards maintaining these positive outcomes can be a little wearing.
Hear me out. In my experience this overall success is translated into constant vigilance on the micro-scale. It’s like my partner believes if you let anything slide, anything at all, society will fall apart, and all will be lost. So, perhaps unsurprisingly, throughout our parenting journey my husband has been a stickler for every single standard you can think of, and most likely quite a few you haven’t ever even considered.
Like sippy cups. From the time our kids were able to hold their own sippy cup, my husband considered them too big to need one. So, no matter how likely it was that the glass would be dropped and the contents would be spilled, they were given regular cups. I drew a line. We have FOUR kids. Plastic tumblers were the compromise – still a mess, but less broken glass to clean up. To be fair his position is solidly based on the reality here. During school lunches Finnish kids often balance their own trays laden with ceramic plates and glass glasses from the serving line to their tables starting around age five.
Along with early expectations of coordination and table manners there is an overarching cardinal rule against freaking out in public, no matter what. There is no excuse, really none, for acting out of turn or doing something rash. (Insert sigh and involuntary eyeroll here.) While I wonder how much of my irritation comes down to my husband specifically, and how much is more generally about Finland, it’s definitely true that no raised voices, no “pulling faces,” no visible signs of anger whatsoever in shared spaces is, indeed, a society-wide norm here.
Logically, these community-wide expectations help “keep the peace” and arguably contribute to later accomplishments. And, hey, there is something to be said for not having to worry about stuff like road rage, like at all. In practice with my brood, however, this means if someone is getting too loud out and about, my kids and I are only half-joking when we admonish, “Shh, your American is showing!”
Back in the privacy of our home, another of these standards that still manages to surprise me relates to safety. It is literally a bigger deal to my husband that he might have to dig out his keys and unlock the door than any (vanishingly small) possibility of someone unwanted, much less an actual malicious intruder, coming into our house. Now, I simply cannot knowingly leave the door open to the world when I am home and want to put my guard down, especially if I am home alone with my children. It might be silly, but that is still the way it is in my head. Objectively, crime rates are so low where we live that his point of view is justified. And still. It is annoying, both to be expected to disregard an entire lifetime of training in caution and fear, as well as having to face that this trauma exists in the first place.
Finally, I am theoretically all-in when it comes to Finland’s attempts to grow a more sustainable economy. But I take just that bit of issue with how it intersects with gift giving. My husband firmly believes gifts often miss the mark and are, therefore, disdained as wasteful.
Even in school, every child’s birthday is celebrated in precisely the same manner. And I have never seen it stated officially, but parents are discouraged from individually bringing in treats to the point of it not being done. OK, fair enough. This saves a lot of uncomfortable comparisons and the not-so-subtle one-upmanship I remember from elementary days. So, credit where credit is due, the evidence suggests it isn’t just my husband on this one.
But this extends even to teacher / staff / coach appreciation. I learned years ago (naturally by being inadvertently awkward in my generous, naveve American way) that if any end of year gift is given at all, it is almost always as a group endeavor. This is annoying on the one side. I enjoy making someone’s day with a bit of a fuss, especially if it is an adult who has had a particularly strong influence or connection with one of my kiddos. But I have reluctantly come to accept the view held here in Finland that this type of performed gratitude is slightly suspect, akin to baby steps towards corruption and seeking out favors.
And hey, the memory of the nervous smiles and sideways glances as one of my proud toddlers presented a shoe box of gluey-glittery-handmade valentines to the confused preschool teacher still makes me giggle. Not too loudly, of course.
Jackie Carroll is a teacher and mom of five from SD, WA, and just over a decade of Belgium thrown in. She lives on the western coast of Finland.