Party politics of holding children's parties in Sweden
Children’s parties are for fun with friends - unless you are Swedish
Markus Oscarsson in Stockholm and Roger Boyes
It was supposed to be a party with balloons and a birthday cake but the eight-year-old Swedish boy had not reckoned on his country’s obsession with equality and inclusiveness. Two of his classmates were left off the invitation list – and that, deemed his school – was forbidden and a violation of their rights in the strictest “nanny state” in Europe.
The case has been sent to the Swedish parliament and has sparked a national debate about individual liberty. Does a child have the right to invite anyone he wants to a party, even if he risks hurting the feelings of those who were left out?
These issues are taken seriously in a society that has a very active Children’s Ombudsman and which encourages children to voice their complaints about school and society. Sweden is the best place in the world to grow up, according to the Save the Children Fund’s 2008 index. So much so, apparently, that adults and school managers have been put on the defensive.
The Swedish pressure group Children’s Rights in Society publicised recently 1,895 complaints by children about the way their parents used the household computer to access pornographic websites or sex chatlines. The Government is now looking into the problem.
Lena Nyberg, the Children’s Ombudsman, is waging a campaign against collective punishment in schools too. Children have been complaining to her about the way that entire classes are kept behind after hours to punish an offence committed by a single pupil. “Adults at work would never accept being punished for something which a colleague is guilty of,” Ms Nyberg said.
The birthday party case takes state intervention to a new level. Before the beginning of lessons the boy had cheerfully threaded his way through the class handing out invitations. When the teacher spotted that two children had not received one he confiscated the invitations.
“One of the children had not invited my son to his own birthday party,” explained the father of the boy, who lodged an official complaint with the parliamentary ombudsman. “The other one had been bad to my son for six months. You do not invite your antagonists.”
That was not convincing enough for the headmaster or government deputies. “I believe the staff acted correctly, in a model way,” said Lars Hansson, of the Swedish Liberal party, one of the four ruling coalition partners in the country.
“It is their duty to reject any forms of insulting behaviour. To eliminate individual children from parties is not acceptable.”
The school, in Lund, southern Sweden, argues that if invitations are handed out on school premises, which are public areas, it has an obligation to ensure that there is no discrimination. It is irrelevant that the party will be held in a private household.
In other societies, exclusion from a party may be considered as a rite of passage. Many Swedes seem to believe, though, that equal treatment helps to reduce the unseemly scramble for classroom popularity and the splitting of pupils into groups of the socially attractive and those children perceived as unpopular.
A poll in Dagens Nyheter, a daily newspaper in Stockholm, showed that Swedes are divided on the matter: 56 per cent believed that a child should be free to choose who attends his party and 44 per cent backed the teachers.
The debate is likely to continue until a verdict is reached in September, in time for the next school year.
“My son has taken it pretty hard,” his father told the newspaper Sydsvenskan. “No one has the right to confiscate someone’s property in this way, it’s like taking someone’s post.”
In the meantime, the boy has several years to plan a very special celebration for his 18th birthday, when he will be free to leave anyone he wants to off the guest list.