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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?"
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
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
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.
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.