Renée Schafer Horton: Lessons from Free Parenting in Japan | Local editorials and opinion


Here is the author’s opinion and analysis:

A few weeks ago, my daughter introduced me to the Japanese TV show “Hajimete no Otsukai” (“My First Race”), which Netflix renamed “Old Enough!” when it launched at the top of its must-have list.

It’s a quirky little reality show featuring children aged 2 to 6 sent home alone to run errands and/or manage public transport. My first reaction upon hearing the description of the show was, “This is crazy!”

But I found it intriguing. The first episode followed an almost 3-year-old walking many blocks to the grocery store and buying three items his mother had requested. The most terrifying part was when he tried to cross a major intersection without the benefit of a traffic light. He only had a small yellow flag that his mother had taught him to wave to stop cars. He waved, they stopped, he trotted across and I had a mild panic attack.

Lest we think the show’s producers have lost their minds, my research revealed that race routes are pre-planned and inspected by parents and crew to check for dangerous roads or infamous strollers. The producers also spar with the kids and there is an assigned “security team” hiding where they can see the kids but the kids can’t see them. Most importantly, neighbors along the route are notified of the child’s task so they can offer assistance if needed.

People also read…

The result of “Old Enough!” demonstrates the benefit of developing a child’s self-confidence early by completing challenging real-life tasks. Compare that to, say, the American practice of participation trophies for everyone. Let’s be clear: I’m not sympathetic to toddlers — or even the average 5-year-old — running errands alone, especially near traffic. Those cute kids in “Old Enough!” are only old enough because a team of adults are nearby to make sure the worst doesn’t happen.

But I’ve also seen the damage done since the early 80’s when ‘stranger danger’ entered our consciousness and parents started to keep the kids indoors and incompetent.

In 1984, Congress created the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children following the abduction of a New York child by an unknown person. They announced that nearly 750,000 children go missing each year.

The fine print of the data showed that the vast majority (about 500,000) of these children were teenage runaways who eventually returned home, and of the rest, all but a hundred were taken by non-custodial parents or relatives. in custody battles.

But the fine print didn’t get much press and parents were obsessed. Childhood has become a glove of adult-supervised activities, with children pampered and parents exhausted – and broke – from being drivers and playmates. Children grew up without what play (and chores) unsupervised teaches: negotiation, cooperation, problem solving and competence. It hasn’t been good for anyone – just ask any college professor who deals with helicopter parents and 18-year-olds with no basic skills. “Old enough!” reminds us that there is a better way.

Here’s an example: Every day I drive past an elementary school with over 50 idling cars waiting to pick up children who live within a mile of the school, so they don’t qualify for service. of buses. Ignore how awful idling cars are to the environment and focus on the horror of this scene for independence. All children older than kindergarten should walk or bike to school. Should they do it alone? Maybe not. But if everything children walk, nobody would be alone

In the meantime, parents can take a hint from “Old Enough!” and ask neighbors to watch. Start in first grade, ring the doorbell of every neighbor and say, “Hi, my name is Rachel. He’s my son, Henry. He will cycle around the neighborhood and to school to develop his independence. Please keep an eye on him. Do you have kids I can meet so they know I’m here to help them if they need anything? »

This “Let Me Introduce My Family” strengthens neighborhoods while making the area safe for independent children’s play. (And yes, we need a version of Utah’s Free-Range Kids Bill so parents won’t be afraid of Nosy Nancy calling the police about a group of 8-year-olds playing alone in the park.)

Let’s take a hint from Japan and make our own children capable and contributing as early as elementary school. Take your 6-year-old to the market, give him three things to buy, and wait by the front door while he sorts himself out. Walk your 7-year-old to school for a week, then let him do it alone. Scour your neighborhood for children under two your child’s age and invite everyone for snacks, then kick them outside with a ball and chalk to make up a game. Stop whining about homework and chores; sit down with your coffee (and your earplugs) and let the child learn responsibility. There are endless options for our children to be “old enough!” and as long as everyone stops before sending a 3 year old downtown with only a yellow flag as traffic control, I think we’ll be fine.

Renée Schafer Horton is a regular contributor to opinion pieces. Contact her at

and learn more about freerange parenting at


Comments are closed.