Independent Japanese Children

This article about the remarkable independence of Japanese children initially caught my attention due to the fact that I deplore our fear-based, helicopter parenting, culture. I want my son to know how to live in the world; not for him to be so artificially shielded from it that he has no idea how to face it on his own, or worse to never be able to.

Although it’s tempting to point to a culture where twelve year olds regularly ride the subway alone and demand to know why we can’t do likewise, the article wisely delves into the cultural differences that make such a phenomenon possible:

What accounts for this unusual degree of independence? Not self-sufficiency, in fact, but “group reliance,” according to Dwayne Dixon, a cultural anthropologist who wrote his doctoral dissertation on Japanese youth. “[Japanese] kids learn early on that, ideally, any member of the community can be called on to serve or help others,” he says.

This assumption is reinforced at school, where children take turns cleaning and serving lunch instead of relying on staff to perform such duties. This “distributes labor across various shoulders and rotates expectations, while also teaching everyone what it takes to clean a toilet, for instance,” Dixon says.

Taking responsibility for shared spaces means that children have pride of ownership and understand in a concrete way the consequences of making a mess, since they’ll have to clean it up themselves. This ethic extends to public space more broadly (one reason Japanese streets are generally so clean). A child out in public knows he can rely on the group to help in an emergency.

I really hope that there are reasons for this other than Japan’s monoculturalism, so that those of us who live in multicultural societies can learn some lessons from them, even if I frankly doubt it. The level of trust and interdependence described above is much more difficult in a multicultural context. I still hope we learn how. Let’s start.

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