Thursday, December 8, 2011

Supporting Families and Education

Finland is doing something right.

At least, that's the basic premise behind a recent Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article, "All Eyes on Education." Finnish students excel on international measures of academic achievement; they consistently receive high scores in reading, math and science. Finland also has one of the world's smallest achievement gaps between its lowest- and highest-performing school. And they do it all on a per-kid education budget that's less than the United States'.

But as the article makes clear, Finns' educational success isn't completely due to high standards for teachers and an emphasis on creativity and independent thought. The country also places a high value on the family -- and, unlike the United States, which pays lip service to the importance of family but actually does very little support families, Finland puts its money where its priorities lie.

While the United States leaves parents alone to figure out how to juggle work, family, childcare and education, the Finnish government allows parents (of both sexes!) to take up to 17 weeks of paid vacation of the birth of a child. If they wish, parents can add on another three years of unpaid leave. Free daycare is available for all children from infancy to kindergarten-age, but if parents choose to care for their children at home, they receive a monthly home-care allowance from the government. That's on top of the monthly child support money every single family receives until the kids are grown, the one the article says parents get because Finns believe "that raising children shouldn't be an undue financial burden for families."

Oh, and they get healthcare as well.

Think about it: How different would life be if all parents were able to take time off of work to bond with their babies? If parents who wanted to nurture their children at home were given the resources to do so, instead of being financially forced to place their children into often sub-standard childcare arrangements so that they can pay the bills and have health insurance?

What would it be like if we gave families the tools they needed to raise and nurture the next generation?

Yes, such government support comes at a cost. According to the Journal Sentinel article, income taxes in Finland range from 6.5% to 30%; municipal taxes are 16 to 21%, depending on income. But I wonder: How much would that really affect my daily budget? I mean, if I got healthcare and childcare and some child support from the government back, would I really be paying any more per month? Or would I merely be participating in a system that does its best to ensure that all kids get a good start in life?

Because I believe that what happens at home is always more important than what happens at school. Whether you're in Finland or inner city L.A., what happens at home has far more bearing on your education and character development than anything that happens in the classroom.

I'm in no position to emigrate to Finland, so for now, I will do everything I can to support families and education here in the U.S. For me, that has meant sacrificing years of income and retirement security to be with my kids in their younger years. It means continuing to support my kids' interests and outside activities, even now that most of them are in school. It also means supporting moms and dads by the dissemination of information. That's why I write articles; that's why I blog.

It's also why I try to provide support and encouragement to every parent I meet. Parenting is hard work, and even if I can't help with the specifics of your situation, I can assure you that challenges are normal and that the struggle is worth the effort. I can smile at mom with two crying kids in a stroller; perhaps my smile will signal to her that I think her efforts are worthwhile.

I can also work in community to meet the needs of the families around me. I can donate food to my local food pantry, buy gifts for families in need over the holidays and support legislation that supports families and education.

What are you doing to support families and education? Do you think government should play a larger role in the support of families, ala Finland? Or do you think there's something to be said for the U.S. approach?


  1. Oh could I use some of that support right now.

  2. I'm new here and I'll admit to a bit of confusion. You seem to believe that we owe parents money to be at home with their children, yet you also talk about life not being fair. I'll also admit that where your idea that you owe the kids and education, but you don't owe them a ride to school resonates with me, this post does not. To me it's the same thing. You've sacrificed to be at home, I've sacrificed to be at home, and I know life isn't fair. I know that my neighbor down the street doesn't owe me the money to pay for my ride (my car). I'm intrigued by your blog, but not sure where you are really coming from.


  3. Thanks for your comment, Jenn. I'm so glad that you spoke up and shared your feelings and confusion, rather than just clicking the X in the upper corner. ;)

    The problem with blogging -- with writing in general -- is that it can be seen as a one-way conversation: I put these words down in black and white; therefore, that is what I think on the subject. Some of the confusion perhaps comes from the fact that these are topics I'm thinking through and exploring, topics that I hope to explore with others in conversation. What I write is what I think, but I want to hear and consider and weigh your thoughts and opinions too.

    Just as I'm growing as a parent, I'm growing as a person. My thoughts and feelings on all kind of topics are evolving, and I'm sure that if you go back in the blog, you'll see that evolution.

    In regards to this particular post, I don't necessarily think that parents should be paid to stay at home; I'm reflecting on a system that does support parents, economically and otherwise. Personally, I'm not surprised that Finland's kids outscore ours on measures of academic achievement in international tests. Because of their government's policies, it's easier, I think, for families to be there for their kids -- and "being there" for your kids has been cited time and again as being an important component of learning and later academic achievement. Because of their governmental policies, kids have a good chance of growing up with adequate food, healthcare and nurturing.

    Full disclosure: I've never been to Finland. But given what I've read, what I see in Finland is a country that, as a whole, believes in giving all kids the best possible start. It's a country that's willing to sacrifice, as a whole, for all kids and families. Here in the US, it's all done individually. You and I may choose to stay home with our kids because we believe it's in our kids' best interests, and deal with the economic consequences of that. Other parents, by choice or necessity, make different choices and deal with those consequences. But as a society, we ALL have to bear the consequences of our extremely individualistic system. Many, many kids are coming out of school with a minimal education, and some of that is because their families had little or no support. Yes, I believe that we all have a responsibility to work and contribute. But here, it's not at all a given that all kids have an extraordinarily good chance of coming to school with adequate healthcare, food and nurturing, and that obviously affects their learning.

    Do I want the US govt. to support me? No. Do I think that our country could do a better job of crafting policies to support families? Yes. (Ex. -- Social Security credits for the years a parent spends at home, taking care of kids) In the meantime, though, I will do what I can to support and encourage all parents and families, because I really do believe that families are key.

  4. My former boss LOVED Finland, and he tried to travel there as often as he could. (We worked in the Int'l Affairs office of a university.) From him I learned how Finland was the "perfect" (his words) country and that everything ran perfectly there -- all the trains on time, etc. A beautiful, clean country. I also know that Finland is extremely homogenous, and it's an extremely expensive country to live in. So I don't think we can really compare the U.S. to Finland. But I do agree with you that the U.S. could support families better. Employers could be more sympathetic to employees with families, but, unfortunately, I don't think that'll ever happen. As long as there are people who are willing to work 12 hour days, companies will be able to replace the family man or woman. I love your post because you bring up a very good topic, and looking at how other countries support families is a good idea because it could at least give us an idea for some changes here. My friend in Australia got a year off of her job after each pregnancy, though she was eventually "made redundant" because of changes within the company. So that makes me wonder how some companies in other countries deal with employees taking so much time off.

  5. The New York Times today has an intriguing article, "From Finland, an Intriguing School-Reform Model." Check it out at

  6. That was a great article, and actually, a lot of what Finland is doing is what I want to do in my homeschool! I want the early years to be more about building my children's love of learning and fostering their imaginations. I don't want them to have to deal with the testing and competition. I want them to find out what they are passionate about in their own time. Thanks for sharing.