Remember the Sesame Street cartoon where the little girl was sent to the corner store for groceries? She had to remember a list of three things, and succeeded by repeating the list and then visualizing her mother saying it. I remember being sent to the store sometimes, too. Nowadays, it seems people would sooner call the police on a kid walking alone than say hello, no matter how purposeful he or she looked on their errand.
If there weren’t already enough things to love about the Japanese (um, hello: Totoro, Cooking with Dog, and adorable bento boxes), they also have a parenting philosophy that Americans can really learn from: fostering childhood independence. Japanese kids often travel alone, navigating their neighborhoods the way American kids did back in the 1970s and ’80s. Most importantly, rather than send Child Protective Services after parents, the communities in which children are raised support this.
In Japan, independence isn’t just a desirable personality trait; It’s a necessity. According to Nobuko Uchida, Executive Auditor of University of Tsukuba’s Child Research Net (a Japanese education nonprofit), autonomy is both developmentally normal and important for personal growth in young kids.
“Children at this age have acquired skills to think and make decisions on their own according to certain situations and to adjust themselves to the environment surrounding them, which previously was controlled by adults when they were toddlers,” she writes.
This is a sentiment echoed by Montessori education models, too, as kindergarten-aged kids enter what is known as the “second plane of development.”
“Above all,” Uchida notes, “it is important for parents to understand that the aim of child discipline is to support autonomy in children and to teach an ideal way of living for the child’s sake.” (Emphasis mine.)
One beaming example of the intersection between this notion of childhood independence and the importance of cultural reinforcement comes from a Japanese TV show. Hajimete no Otsukai, or “My First Errand,” has been running for more than 25 years in Japan. On the show, very young kids are sent on short errands within a few blocks of home. They are responsible for making their way on their own to the store (or sometimes to multiple stops), remember the items on a list, and then pay for them. In one episode, a four-year-old girl rides the train to a neighboring town to deliver her father’s lunch box. (Don’t worry, there are hidden cameramen ready to intervene if situations go too far south.) Passersby and store owners chat with and cheer on the children as they make their way. Everyone is happy to be part of the kids’ rite of passage.
My six year-old might not be ready to ride the light rail 15 miles to deliver his dad’s lunch, but there has to be room for us regular parents in the wide chasm between unmitigated freedom and abject child neglect. And a growing body of literature suggests that our kids would be better off if we all jumped in.