The Finnish Model of Freedom

Summary of Anu Partanen. The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life. HarperCollins, 2016

Finnish writer Anu Partanen married an American and moved to New York, where she was surprised by the prevailing anxiety and stress about juggling daily life, work and family. She met many people taking mood-elevating pharmaceuticals like Xanax and cited a national Institutes of Mental Health report that almost one in five adults suffer from anxiety disorder.[1] She observed something she hadn’t seen in Finland, that “children were taking over their parents’ lives,”[2] including young adults dependent on their parents and living with them. She pointed out this full nest is happening in other struggling economies such as Italy, Spain and Japan, but would be considered very odd in Nordic countries where all student receive stipends of about $600 a month until they graduate and can also get rent subsidies. In the US sandwich generation, she saw middle-aged adults consumed by caring for their frail elderly parents.

Helicopter parenting is rare once Finnish children start school because all schools are good quality. Independence is valued and hovering over or coddling children is looked down upon.[3] In Finland, parents encourage their children to be independent, manage their schoolwork and make their own decisions. In contrast, in the US parents feel their children have to be helped to be “superachievers” to be successful in a “harsh” society.[4] Partanen was also surprised by how parenting responsibility still rests on the mother, while in Finland a father told her, “It’s almost like you’re not a real man anymore if you haven’t done your share of diaper duty.”[5] Partanen observed some parental leave time reserved only for the father makes a huge difference. As a consequence of family support programs more Nordic mothers are employed than in the US. The 2015 World Economic Forum Gender Gap Report found the Nordic countries are the most gender equal (Iceland, Norway and Finland were at the top), while the US was in 28th place.[6]

Partanen doesn’t blame the micromanager adults, but rather the US structural lack of family support systems, expensive child care (often over $10,000 a year for infants) poor quality schools, rising college costs and dependency on their employers for medical care, pensions, and savings accounts. Partanen knows many women in the US who look for a husband who is successful financially, while in Finland the individual is the unit, not the couple, as in taxing each person independently. Save the Children reported that Nordic countries are the best place to be a mother, with Norway and Finland at the top of the list, followed by the US in 33rd place.[7] The Finnish government proposed in November 2015 that each adult receive 800 euros a month basic income (this ideas also is being discussed in Switzerland, the Netherlands, Canada and the US in an era when computers could replace human in nearly half of US jobs in two decades, according to an Oxford University study).[8]

The Nordic countries score high on well-being because of their commitment to creating independence and equality for each individual, including youth, as epitomized in the Swedish children’s stories about Pippi Longstocking. She lives alone, in contrast to the nuclear family that lives next door to her house. In fact, they’re the most “individualized societies.”[9] In contrast, Partanen views the US government as “micromanaging society with case-by-case policies.” Finns aren’t perfect; alcoholism is problematic partly due to the long dark winter and Partanen reports melancholy and pessimism is common. Yet, the Nordic people she knows are much more relaxed and free of stress, more free in general. They have affordable health care, ten months of paid parental leave for each child including some leave for fathers only (parents can take unpaid leave up to three years), excellent affordable child care and education, free universities, elder care, and four or five weeks of paid vacation. They believe it’s easy to have a healthy relationship between various ages with equality and lack of dependency.



Partanen heard US parents frequently talking about their worries about education in what she calls a backward system dependent on the parents’ income and school district in a country where 21% of children live in poverty and 43% live in low-income families.[10] In contrast, since 2000 Finish schools have scored at the top or near it on international studies, along with South Korean and Japan, as well as scoring positively on studies of numbers of children in poverty and general well-being and happiness of citizens.[11] Schools with challenges such as more immigrants receive extra funding from the national government. In reforms begun in the early 1970s, Finland established a national system with few private schools, starting with childcare where children are encouraged to play. All teachers have a master’s degree and prestige but their salaries are below what lawyers and doctors earn. Principals continue to teach, reducing costs. No standardized tests are given (in contrast, the US spends around $1.7 billion a year on this testing[12]) and teachers can pick their own textbooks. All students learn carpentry, cooking and sewing, arts, and physical education as well as academic subjects with tutoring available. Partanen suggested that Finnish universities need to improve, in comparison to top US universities.

Students receive free hot meals, health care, and counseling including a team including a medical professional, social worker, psychologist, counselor, and teacher to address problem. School days are short and homework is minimal because they believe young people should have time to play and be creative. Competition is discouraged in favor of cooperation and not standing out, thus there are no sports teams at school. The Scandinavian “Law of Jante” draws from a 1933 novel by Aksel Sandermose about a fictional town called Jante, where the rules are you’re not special, or better than we are, or think you are good at anything, etc.[13] She said Finns have the worst self-esteem of any nation she’s seen.

Education expert Pasi Sahlberg suggested in 2014, “We may have to invent a way of thinking about curriculum that is not so focused on the traditional academic subjects and time allocation.”[14] He is also concerned about boys’ lagging behind girls in their school performance and would like more focus on teaching communication skills. In fall of 2016, a new national curriculum was introduced to emphasize student-centered learning and interdisciplinary approaches, perhaps partially in response to declining scores on PISA in 2013 and increasing numbers of immigrants in schools.[15]


[1] Anu Partanen. The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life. HarperCollins, 2016, p. 24.

[2] Partanen, p. 30.

[3] Partanen, p. 149.

[4] Partanen, P. 314.

[5] Partanen, p. 92.


[7] “Iceland is the Third Best Place to be a Mother, Iceland Magazine, May 5, 2015.

[8] Judith Shulevitz, “It’s Payback Time for Women,” New York Times, January 8, 2016.

[9] Partanen, p. 56.

[10] “Child Poverty,” National Center for Children in Poverty, February 2016.

[11] Anu Partanen. The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life. HarperCollins, 2016, pp. 3-6, p. 15.

[12] Andrew Ujifusa, “Standarized Testing Costs States $1.7 Billion a Year,” Education Week, November 29, 2012.

[13] Partanen, p. 307.

[14] Pasi Sahlberg, “Global Perspectives,” Center on International Education Benchmarking, February 5, 2014.

[15] Madeline Will, “Finland’s Education Minister Discusses New National Curriculum and PISA Score, Education Week, October 6, 2016.



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