Finnish parents receive one from the government with every new child. What lessons can the U.S. learn from the country's accepted cultural tradition?
For two of my Finnish friends, Santa Claus made an early visit this year. The couple, expecting a baby in June, found a note left by the postman. Their "baby box" was ready to pick up. The Finnish government sends all parents-to-be a container of goodies to help with the baby's first year. Could this uniquely Finnish tradition encourage us to look outside the box of American parenting?
The baby box program dates back to the 1930s, and is to Finland what the seventh-inning stretch and Thanksgiving are to Americans--part of the culture. Finns can either opt for the box or a cash grant of 140 Euros ($200)--but almost every first-time mom chooses the box, which is seen as the better deal.
All parents in a given year get the exact same box. As you can see, it includes outfits in different sizes, to fit a growing baby. There are also baby nail scissors, diapers, baby books, toys, shoes, gloves, and a sleeping bag for the baby.
There's a winter suit, which is larger in size if you're due to give birth in the spring or summer so that the outfit will fit the baby during the following cold season. And trust me, in Finland the baby needs a winter suit to get through minus 20-degree temperatures, with only a few hours of sunlight a day.
The box even doubles as a bed for the baby's first few months, complete with a mattress.
Some things are missing--deliberately. There's no baby bottle or formula, to encourage breastfeeding.
The baby box might strike some Americans as the epitome of the nanny state. Can't people get their own crib? And isn't there a slippery slope here? When the baby has outgrown its first set of clothes, why doesn't the state provide a second baby box, followed by a child box, and then an adult box?
Warning to Tea Partiers: get a cup of calming chamomile tea ready. The baby box is part of a big government Finnish welfare state, with high taxation rates for wealthy Finns.
Right now it would be tough to sign Americans up for a national program of baby boxes. Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana called U.S. debt a "survival-level threat." Perhaps Republican Rep. Paul Ryan had the baby box in mind when he described a choice between U.S.-style limited government and a "cradle-to-grave, European-style social welfare state."
And doesn't America already have its own baby box in the form of a baby shower? If friends, work colleagues, or religious groups provide gifts, isn't this more individualized--more an expression of American freedom?
For some people, the mere idea of dressing your child in the same outfit as other kids seems too conformist, too much like a state uniform.
But in Finland the baby box is completely uncontroversial. From the Finnish perspective, the program provides the basics, lessening the stress for new parents and giving all kids a fair start in life.
The baby box is part of a broader set of policies aimed at helping families. Finnish moms get around ten months of paid maternity leave--some of it shared with the dad. And to nudge men into using this shared time, there's even a "father's month," where dads who go on paternity leave get bonus days to spend with the baby.
Finnish society certainly has its problems--alcoholism is one. But the Finnish model is worth a look, given that Finland has the best education system in the world , and one of the lowest infant mortality rates in the world.
Finns believe that you can't rely on baby showers for something as important as early parenting, because too many poor families get left behind. And neither do Finns care much if their kid is wearing the same outfit as another baby. The baby-box clothes are high quality, and--unsurprisingly for a land that produced brands like Marimekko--hardly lacking in style.
The United States and Finland are a world apart in size, geography, and culture. But perhaps we might learn a few things about generous help for young families from a country that claims Santa Claus as one of its own.
Image: Dominic Tierney