A few days ago, the school held a safety class for the children, followed by an information session for parents. At this class, they were given this pamphlet:
and taught a few moves and tips for being vigilant as they walk to and from school. They were reminded to do things like stay aware, look behind them, and look alert, not daydreamy; keep a certain amount of distance between themselves and the next person; use their very loud safety buzzer (each child keeps one on his or her backpack) in short frequent bursts if they feel someone suspicious is nearby. They did a lot of role playing of various scenarios and were taught how to use all of their senses to empower themselves. Parents were given tips too, all of which were new to me and very, very interesting.
Here, children begin walking to school by themselves in first grade, which means ages 6-7, usually in little groups of kids walking together. They are also taking public transportation such as trains or buses by themselves. Kids also commute to lessons and to meet friends in the park. They have regular safety classes at school where they learn about traffic safety. They do this whether they live in the city and have to navigate traffic lights, or in the countryside walking on isolated roads or through rice paddies.
There are parents who don't start quite this young, depending on how far the school is, but after being here for so long I've gotten quite used to the common sight of little ones walking around on their own in their little school hats and backpacks. There's even a well-known children's book called "My First Errand," about a little girl who walks to the neighborhood store to buy a carton of milk for her mother. "I can do it," she tells her mom, "because after all, I'm five!" She has all sorts of little adventures – running into a friend, tripping and losing hold of her coins, getting to the store and finding it hard to speak loudly enough to get the owner's attention, forgetting her change – but she is proud of herself at the end.
This is one of the things that I feel makes life feel easier for parents here, when kids can go around on their own. Imagine, no carpools, no traffic and stress. No trying to juggle schedules for siblings with different activities (made worse by the fact that schools often don't get out on time and classes end at a different time each day). Of course, I have seen parents who go to meet their children at school to pick them up, or walk them part way till they get to an intersection with a cross guard. But the overwhelming majority of kids go about on their own.
It probably takes a certain amount of faith in the universe to say goodbye to little ones in the morning and trust they'll be home later on. But I think the little kids here doing this every day are becoming savvy about things like traffic and finding their way around, and know what to do about minor problems like getting caught in the rain. I remember when feeling conflicted about this (and in many ways, as a bicultural parent, I still do), talking with a friend from the U.S. about this. She said that when parents are overprotective, they only think about the theoretical dangers they are protecting their children from, and not the sense of adventure, of competence, and the survival instinct that young children who do this are able to develop and hone. A Japanese friend tells me that Japanese returnees – Japanese kids who spent time in the US – are known to have trouble finding their way around when they first come back, because they didn't learn how to develop a sense of direction.
It's a controversial topic, I know. And I know there are many differences between U.S. and Japanese society that come into play, too many for me to attempt to make any generalizations about the way things should be anywhere. But I see this same sort of letting go in smaller ways too here – in the way that, from a very young age, parents encourage their children to work things out on their own rather than having an adult intervene, hover, advise in their interactions and problems. For better or for worse, these are some salient differences that have really jumped out at me as a parent in two very different countries.
What's it like where you live? At what age do you see children walking around on their own?