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“If you love your kids, send them on a trip”

Living in another country is a lesson in the completely subjective nature of societal expectations. How things are done, our perception of what is good, bad or “normal”; we develop these ideas based on the environment we know and unique cultural references, and these can vary widely depending on where we grew up.

It doesn't take long to see immediate differences in our surroundings when we travel – you may remember that I recently wrote about eight things many foreigners find “surprising” on their first trip to Japan – but it often takes much longer to grasp just how deeply rooted a practice is in a given society. For example, long time readers of this blog may recall my piece a few years back about the prevalence of the game ‘rock, papers, scissors' in Japan, a practice I knew about long before but had only then come to the realisation about just how important it is in Japanese society and why. It's been a while since I've elaborated on a Japanese cultural topic, but was prompted to write about children's independence in Japan after a video on the Japanese school commute popped up in my social media feed last week.

Japan's culture of raising independent kids

A mini-documentary by Australia's SBS has been circling the Internet the past week or so that talks about “Japan's independent kids”. It depicts a typical day in the life of a seven-year-old Japanese school girl compared to a 10-year-old Australian school girl. Essentially it shows the Japanese girl getting ready for school, walking to the train station and then taking two trains to get to school in busy Tokyo – all by herself. The girl in the Sydney suburbs munches away on breakfast while her father brushes her hair. He packs her school bag and turns off the lights after her, before driving her to the school gates. The mini-documentary only goes for 8 minutes. Take a look.

While, like anything we research, we can't say these morning routines are representative of every Japanese and Australian family, I'd say that the fundamental cultural mindsets are quite accurate. Whether they walk or take public transport to school or not, Australian children tend to have more things done for them until an older age than Japanese children. I'm going to talk about this topic from the Australian vs. Japan perspective because, firstly, that is what this documentary is about and, secondly, because that is what I know most about, as an Australian who now lives in Japan. However, one could extend this discussion to countries and cultures across the globe, and I'm keen to hear about your thoughts and experiences in the comments section.

My observations come from teaching students in Japan at a range of levels – from pre-kinder, kinder, primary school, junior high school and high school through to university and adults. The schools I have taught at have been a combination of public and private, and range from large classes to one-to-one lessons.

Vastly different cultural mindsets

I still remember very vividly the first time I saw a student I knew on the busy streets of Ikebukuro (an inner city suburb of Tokyo) alone. On weekends when the language school opened early, it was often a matter of weaving one's way through the morning crowds to get to class on time. I was now some distance from the train station where the crowds had petered out and there was just a small gathering of people at the next set of lights. As I stood there waiting for the lights to change, I realised that the kid standing next to me was a student of our school, although I didn't teach him personally. I said “Good morning” and he confidently responded back in English. I looked around to acknowledge his parents, just so they knew I was a teacher and not some random person talking to their son. But there was no one with him. “Where are your parents?” I asked. “Oh, my mum's shopping,” he said matter of factly. I went full-on adult responsibility mode on him. “Are you OK? Do you need help? Do you know where you're going?” “I'm totally fine,” he said. Then the lights changed and he darted across the intersection quicker than I could follow after him in my work heels. He was 4 years old.

Another day, another student. I finish teaching a five year old. I am usually expected to go out and speak to the parents after one-to-one lessons, to tell them how their son or daughter did that day and explain the homework I'd like them to do. But the reception area was empty. “Where are your parents?” I asked. “Oh, they're at home.” “So, how are you going to get home?” “By train.” “By yourself?” He looked at me like I was from another planet. “Yes,” he confirmed. Me: “Will you be OK?” I mean, I feel responsible for this kid. “I know my way.” And off he went into the elevator and on his way home.

Letting kids fall

It took me some time to “let go” of my own cultural preconceptions of what kids can and cannot do in Japan. While my students were not my children, I did have to stop myself from getting “parenty” on them sometimes, like I had to actively remind myself not to step in and help them too much just because kids may not be given similar responsibilities in Australia at that age.

I used to worry that my pre-kinder and kinder class kids would trip and fall on anything and everything around the school and that it would be all my fault if they did. It's not like I or any of my Japanese colleagues didn't take due diligence to prevent anything from happening, but in Japan it's expected that sometimes kids will trip and fall, and instead of making a big deal about it, it's put down to kids working things out for themselves.

Hai and I often describe kids in Japan as ‘rough and tumble'. You should see how disheveled they look half the time from running around all day! Part of being active and doing a lot of things for yourself means you gradually learn what works and what doesn't. And sometimes you fall. I don't know how many times I've seen Japanese kids hurt themselves, and before you can even rush in to help, they're often already on their feet and dusting themselves off.

Lawsuits “waiting to happen”

One of the things we love about exploring the outskirts of Tokyo is all the random play equipment you can find. There's this forested area by a lake not too far from where we live and amongst all the trees we discovered this amazing obstacle course and an epic flying fox. We started climbing around on the ropes course and the first thing that Hai said was, “This is awesome. There is no way this would still be around in Australia.” There were no safety nets or wood chips or anything to keep kids out of this un-monitored fun land.

It reminded me of primary school and this awesome piece of play equipment that we called the “dome”. It was made of interconnected metal bars that we could climb over or swing from underneath. My friends and I would play on it every day at lunch time, and we used to relish the fact that as time went on we'd be able to climb higher and higher. The day we had the confidence to reach the very top felt like a victory. We were so proud of ourselves. I think we talked about it for weeks.

In all the years it was there one kid fell and broke his arm. One. And then we were banned from playing on it and it was eventually removed. It's as if as soon as anything at all happened to someone's kid on school property, the school was to blame and whatever it was had to be banished immediately. It's strange how when kids injure themselves at home, it's an accident or just kids being kids, but anywhere else and fingers start being pointed. It's as if we as a society have gone crazy on the concept of potential lawsuits. We don't seem to place any of the responsibility on the child themselves because we don't think a child has the mental capacity, maturity or whatever to take responsibility for their own actions. Sure, they may not be able to analyse situations from the viewpoint of an adult and I'm not saying we should “blame” a child for making mistakes, but they are far smarter and capable than we often give them credit for.

Learning not to step in

In Japan, parents don't want other adults to help their kids out too much, even if that help is well intended. They want their kids to learn and grow by working things out on their own. This is an understood part of Japanese culture that is evident throughout the school system. Japanese students are given responsibilities that would often be the task of staff or parents in other parts of the world. The students are put into groups who are responsible for certain tasks each day on a rotating basis. They do everything from serving lunch to their classmates to cleaning the toilets. In this respect, they not only learn how to do a variety of things on their own, they also learn about shared responsibility.

They understand from a very young age that if they make a huge mess of the classroom or leave rubbish in the yard, it is they (and/or their peers) who will have to clean it. Therefore they start to learn how their actions impact others around them. In this way, Japanese students are often quick to “self-discipline”. A child doesn't put their dishes away in the correct collection tray or doesn't finish the food they took and watch how quickly one of the on-duty lunch team members snaps them into line. There's a lot I disagree with when it comes to the Japanese education system, but this promotion of self-reliance, self-control and shared responsibility is something I think more children should be exposed to.

One of the cutest things I have ever seen has to be first graders trying to push the lunch trolley down the hall to their classrooms in their first few months of school. You see, students not only serve lunch in Japan, but they are expected to collect the food trolley and dishes from the kitchen and also return the dirty dishes afterwards. As you can imagine, the food trolley isn't light and at my primary school it took ten six-year-olds to get the job done. Without help, they would need to work out how to get it to the classroom on time on behalf of their hungry classmates. They would take their positions around the trolley and start pushing it down the hall. However, they could never seem to be able to push it in a straight line. So the cart would be pushed towards one side of the hall, before they'd switch their momentum to push it towards the other side, slowly inching their way forward in a zigzag down the corridor. Two would often switch off from their positions to let their classmates know how close they were to the wall and when they needed to re-align. Just wait until they get to the classroom and have to turn the trolley through the doorway!

When I first started teaching in Japan, I would offer help to the younger kids when I saw them coming down the corridor, but they would always strongly refuse. I soon got the sense that they felt they would get into trouble if another teacher saw me helping them. I later realised that assisting kids when they are struggling is not necessarily seen as a good thing in Japan; it's seen as robbing them of the opportunity to grow. Perhaps there is a similar sentiment in Australia but, in my opinion, to a far lesser extent. So from then on I'd simply smile when I walked past and encourage them to keep going. To which they would enthusiastically reply that they'd surely do their best! In fact, Japanese children pride themselves on all the things they can do on their own and it's almost considered embarrassing if they can't at least do the basics for themselves in their first year of school.

Encouraging problem solving

Japanese kids aren't “babied” and I think this is one of the main reasons they freak out far less easily in unfamiliar or difficult situations they might find themselves in. I still remember the time when I was seven years old and I lost sight of my mum in a local department store. It wasn't that big and there weren't many people there, but after only 30 seconds of frantically looking around for her, I was already almost on the verge of tears. Not having someone I knew by my side frightened me instantly because I had never been in a situation where I had to problem solve for my own “survival”.

On the flip side, we've had Japanese students as young as four finding themselves lost on the way to English school (some Japanese stations have so many exits!) and instead of having a meltdown they start thinking of their options. They would go to the station office and ask for directions or even call the school on their mobile phones (yes, even kids this age have mobile phones for this very situation) and a staff member would come and get them. They analysed their situation, thought through potential options and then problem-solved. It's almost astonishing to watch.

Why the Japanese school commute works

Children commuting to school or after school activities alone or with peers of the same age is a completely normal part of Japanese society. As the video mentioned, Japan has an extremely low crime rate and if Japan wants its economy to continue to function as it does now, the school commute for children needs to be safe. Getting children to school safely is therefore considered a collective responsibility for all. Just before the kids get out, the school near our house has an announcement that can be heard around the local area, reminding everyone that school children will soon be making their way home. “Let's all make sure they get home safely!”

Of course, children going to school alone is not simply a practical matter of allowing parents to work in regular office jobs. Many Japanese women, in particular, do continue to take on the traditional role of main homemaker even after their children reach school age, so it is not necessarily that the child doesn't have someone at home to accompany them. There is a fundamental cultural notion behind it all. Pushing your child to do something on their own is viewed as helping them to develop. If you listen carefully to what the mother says in the video, she specifically refers to getting children to do tasks that they can achieve. It would be unrealistic and, in my opinion, detrimental to try to make them do something far beyond their current capabilities. It's about giving them a nudge, even when the child themselves thinks they are not ready for it, and giving them the opportunity to realise their potential.

To be clear, I'm not necessarily saying that one way is better than the other. These have been my experiences and I think it is really interesting to examine how culture shapes our societal expectations. But after having seen both sides of the coin, I do see merit in the Japanese viewpoint that children can often do more than we think and that there is value in not being overly worried about them at every turn.

So, what do you think about this topic? At what age did you start going to school/running errands by yourself? What's the general viewpoint about children doing things alone in your culture/society? Is it really any more dangerous for our children today that a few decades ago, like the father in the video questions? Or are we just hyper aware and super sensitive nowadays? If we want our kids to be capable people, is “sending them on a trip” the most loving thing we can do? Would love to hear your experiences and thoughts in the comments section below.

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