At elementary school in Denmark, I lived in fear of a place so ominous and omnipresent that teachers wielded its name across the playground as the ultimate manifestation of their power. The Green Bench, positioned in the corridor outside the principal’s office, was where we were sent to wait for a proper skæld ud (that is, a “bollocking”). On it kids sat, muted and neutralised, legs dangling fearfully as they awaited their punishment.
That Green Bench also became the site of my first ever act of civil disobedience, the backdrop to the school scandal of the decade. It wasn’t quite the winter of discontent, but, well, nearly.
When the annual snowfall came, a grassy area was usually made available for school-wide snowball fights. But one year the teachers thought that the play had gotten too rough. So the field was suspended from use and it was decreed that anyone who entered it would be sent to The Green Bench, effective immediately.
We weren’t having this. It was time to fight for our right to snowball fight.
So the entire school stubbornly sat on The Green Bench – one kid on top of another. Our sit-down, pile-on protest worked. The teachers were forced to strike a deal with the student body. The grass would be re-opened on the condition that the older kids stopped chastening the younger ones with buksevand: a time-honoured Danish tradition of violently shoving snow down someone’s trousers. We accepted the deal, and the second era of joyous wintertime warfare ensued.
Dubious motivations aside, this political power play does beg the question: how the hell were a bunch of 11-year-olds in Copenhagen in 2008 inspired to demonstrate with a rally of this scale and symbolic gravitas? Certainly, none of us had a clue about the monumental sit-ins and occupations that were fundamental to all the biggest civil rights movements of the 20th century.
But we did have a coherent, if under-formulated, idea that just because The Adults said something was right, that didn’t mean it was right. Our Scandinavian upbringing and education ensured that we didn’t blindly trust the grown-ups. That we would bite the hand that fed us if what it was feeding us had the whiff of skit. We knew that the voice of reason isn’t necessarily the same as the loudest voice in the room. Far from it. Maybe the smallest, quietest, most thoughtful voice is the one that should be listened to.
Neither of Greta Thunberg’s parents were anything like climate activists. In fact, the 16-year-old Swede has majorly inconvenienced her mum’s international opera-singing career by insisting she stop flying. Looking outwards at the world, Greta’s distrust in grown-ups has only sharpened and expanded. In her truth-bomb firing-line now are rooms full of corporate greed-monkeys and politicians.
“You only speak of green, eternal economic growth because you are too scared of being unpopular,” she scolds them with a winning piece of playground politicking.
Like her school-skipping compatriot Pippi Longstocking, the classic of children’s literature created by Swedish author Astrid Lindgren, Greta loves calling bullshit on adults, their “nuanced” worldview and self-congratulating conspiracies.
Of course, Pippi’s kick-ass British equivalent, Roald Dahl’s Matilda, shared her IDGAF attitude when it came to parental authority. And yet Matilda’s universe is unequivocally governed by the grown-up laws of “I’m big, you’re small; I’m right, you’re wrong” in a way that Pippi’s is not.
At school, neither Pippi nor Greta would ever have been embalmed in the discipline and conformity of a uniform. They’ve presumably also never been hit by an adult, as they both grew up in a country where corporal punishment has been (fully!) outlawed since 1979, a radical world first. Some things are just black and white, and no traditional adult sanction, or respect for the so-called grown-ups, can hold back Greta (or Pippi) from calling it how she sees it.
Take, for example, the straight-talking statement on the leaflets Greta handed out when she first started sacking school in Stockholm every Friday to strike for the climate: “I am doing this because you adults are shitting on my future.” As the famous Danish saying goes: sandheden skal man høre fra børn og fulde folk. Only from kids and drunkards will you ever hear the truth.
Scandinavia has received a lot of hype in the past few years, some of it totally absurd (hygge as an interior design style?), and lots of it conveniently ignoring the rampant xenophobia that is indeed rotten in the state of Denmark. But having grown up there, and regularly visited mates in Sweden and Norway, I will vouch for the positives surrounding two key aspects of the Scan-fad: the parenting and the schooling.
Scandi parents are famous for cooperating with and listening to their kids, including them in decision-making and allowing them to make their own mistakes.
At school, too, kids’ opinions are valued. Jens Erik Kristensen, a researcher at the Danish Institute for Pedagogy and Education, tells me that during the post-war era it was a national ethos that kids should learn to maintain a healthy degree of scepticism towards authority, “as a vaccination against fascism”. Over half a century later, it’s still imperative that even the youngest citizens stay woke.
Nowadays, fostering “democratic citizenry” is at the top of the agenda for all three Scandinavian ministries of education (it is quite literally the very first sentence of the Swedish school manifesto). “Their curricula involves discussing current events and forming opinions,” notes Kristensen. “As a consequence, Scandinavian kids are ahead of the curve when it comes to reaching democratic maturity. They become aware of their position as democratic subjects from a very early age.”
Greta, for one, started questioning her parents about climate change aged eight, and held her first climate strike at 15. The threats to the planet weren’t going to wait till she was 18 and an “adult”, so why should she?
This (you might say) extreme, empowering agency given to Nordic kids has induced a small case of national panic in Scandi-land. Conservative kids psychologists argue that we are unwillingly spawning a tyrannical army of little “kings” and “managers”. The “curling-kid” phenomenon – a reference to one of the biggest winter sports in snowy northern Europe – suggests that modern Scandi parents overprotect their little “pucks” by zealously brushing a smooth path for them throughout the “ice” of life.
This completely misses the real point of respecting kids and their opinions. If a child can argue against an adult’s flawed logic, this makes them neither a spoilt brat nor a mini-me boss. It makes them – shocker – a person, with valid critical faculties. And in Greta’s case: a person worth everyone’s attention, since the adult world has long ago gone mad with delusion – or in a more cynical reading, gotten blasé with indifference towards future generations. Yeah, tak, elders.
So apart from the many climate myths that Greta debunks on a daily basis, here is another: that at some precise moment in our development (at age 18? 21? 30?) we Grow Up and our opinions magically become fully formed and somehow Correct.
Well, as we say where I come from, with presumably no translation required: fuck det!
Greta Thunberg is a living, breathing, status quo-rocking and adult-challenging projection of what Astrid Lindgren demonstrated when she first invented Pippi Longstocking as a goodnight tale for her daughter. Of an idea that’s more resonant, revolutionary and powerful than ever before. A mantra that should, like our teenage eco-warrior, travel from Scandinavia to the rest of the world (by boat, not plane, obvs).
“If you give children love, more love and still love, the common sense will come of itself.”