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What Does Japan Know About Kids That We Don't?

Photograph by Getty Images

Imagine, if you can, your 6- or 7-year-old child riding the subway alone in one of the largest, most densely populated cities in the world. Or sending your 2- or 3-year-old out for a loaf of bread—alone.

What the what?

This and more is happening without folks batting a single eyelash in Japan.

As a mother to two young boys living in a large city in the U.S., I can't relate. At all. I've written about how my 1970s suburban childhood looks so vastly different from the childhood my sons are experiencing. But even my nostalgia-laced, free-range childhood couldn't hold a candle to the urban childhoods I read about in Selena Hoy's CityLab article, "Why Are Little Kids in Japan So Independent?"

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I stand in awe of a culture that practices collectivism towards its children. Hillary Clinton wrote her book, "It Takes a Village," in 1996 while still First Lady. That phrase has become part of the modern lexicon in America, but do we really and truly practice it? Nope. In many ways, it feels like a punchline or empty cliché.

In Chicago, where I live and raise a family, a mother was recently investigated and cited for child neglect by our local child services department for allowing her three children (age 5, 9 and 11) to play at a park directly adjacent to their home. The park was, literally, next door, and mom was checking on them through the window every few minutes. Still, she was cited and the investigation lasted more than two years before she was eventually cleared.

In Maryland, a couple was investigated by local authorities and accused of child neglect for allowing their two children (6 and 10) to walk unaccompanied to a local park about a mile away from their home. They have been cleared of any wrongdoing, but their situation sparked national attention and debate that still rages online.

In Japan, there is a popular TV show called Hajimete no Otsukai ("My First Errand") featuring young children (itty-bitty littles) dispatched by their mom to run a family errand independently. The clip I watched featured a brother and sister sent to purchase meat, vegetables and fruit for the family dinner. The kids lived in an urban setting and, aside from walking in high traffic areas, were responsible for handling money and navigating several errands completely independently.

I had a range of maternal emotions as I watched the little siblings on their journey. Initially, the older brother cries as his mom sends them off. His little sister comforts him. Eventually, he gets over his tears and fears, and the duo are successful. Along the way, they earn high praise and friendly hair tousles from shopkeepers and customers impressed with their independence and industriousness.

After just a single 10-minute clip, I understood why the show has been running in Japan for more than 25 years. You want these kiddos to succeed. You empathize with their fear, then cheer them on as they accomplish their goals. The emotions are universal, the pride unmistakable.

To understand why these things are possible in Japan—and much less likely in America— you need to take a closer look at the two cultures. Japanese urban culture is much more neighborhood based. People shop locally and work locally and educate locally. The most common modes of transportation are walking or public trains. The overall footprint is simply smaller than the typical American urban footprint, which is nearly always reliant on cars.

Another difference is the night and day difference between the American philosophy of "stranger danger" and the Japanese philosophy of "group reliance" highlighted in Hoy's article. She interviewed anthropologist Dwayne Dixon, who details how Japanese culture teaches children that community members, even strangers, are to be trusted and looked to for support and guidance when and if needed.

Now there's a concept.

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Perhaps most striking to me, in this exploration of how and why Japanese children are afforded a different level of independence than their American peers, is the absence of other parents tsk-tsking, waiting to pounce and judge and admonish and condemn and even report to the authorities when seeing young children about in the world, learning to make their way. Instead, there is accommodation and support.

Imagine that.

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