At what age do you think children should be allowed to play outdoors without supervision? Take a walk or bike ride alone? Go to a local store? Take public transportation? Stay home alone?
How old were you when you first did those things? What memories do you have about them?
In the Opinion essay “On Japan’s Adorable ‘Old Enough!” Show and the State of American Childhoods,” Jessica Grose writes about a long-running reality show that depicts children reaching common milestones of independence, at ages that may surprise you. The article begins:
An aggressively adorable reality show that’s been on for decades in Japan recently hit Netflix. It’s called “Old Enough!” and it depicts Japanese little ones, some as young as 2, taking their first solo journeys (the show’s original title is translated as “My First Errand”). These tiny children are shown toddling by themselves to the grocery store, to their grandmother’s house to pick something up or to a local farm to yank an enormous cabbage out of the ground.
Sometimes they get distracted from their appointed mission and start playing, and they often notice and interact with the camera operators, who appear in the background of many scenes. But the narrative is basically the same every time: A child overcomes fears or hesitations by running an errand, learning to politely ask questions of supportive and kind adults when help is needed to figure out how to pay for lunch or cross a busy street. And the kids are brimming with pride after accomplishing their tasks.
In addition to being utterly charmed by how cute the show is, my response was: This wouldn’t fly in the United States. If there were an American version, parents who allowed their children to appear would probably be framed as irresponsible, or the kids would be shown to need parental support at every turn.
You’re probably also thinking: America is not Japan. And that’s correct. Our cultures are quite different. One glaring example is gun violence, something that’s rare in Japan and alarmingly predictable in our country. But, sadly, we know that the presence of an adult doesn’t necessarily protect children from that horror. Another difference is infrastructure. As a University of Tokyo professor explained to Slate’s Henry Grabar: “Drivers in Japan are taught to yield to pedestrians. Speed limits are low. Neighborhoods have small blocks with lots of intersections. That means kids have to cross the street a lot — but also keeps drivers going slow, out of self-interest if nothing else.” But even given these differences, we should at least entertain the idea that Americans have over-rotated on protectiveness in the past few decades and need to reconsider letting their kids do more by themselves.
The article ends:
America is vast, and parents know their kids and their specific neighborhoods best — I’m not about to send my 5-year-old to the bodega by herself quite yet. But I hope watching “Old Enough!” will make more American parents consider the possibility that our cultural norms need a reset, or at least a rethink. I watched the show with my youngest, and she was so jealous and irritated that the kids, some of whom were younger than she is, were allowed to do so many exciting things mostly on their own. Seeing the looks of joy on the “Old Enough!” kids’ tiny faces after their quotidian assignments certainly made me want that sense of triumph for my daughters, however they might achieve it.
Students, read the entire essay, then tell us:
Have you seen the show “Old Enough!”? If not, now that you’ve read about it, do you want to?
The author writes that an American version of the show “wouldn’t fly.” Do you agree? Why or why not?
Do you think parents and guardians in small towns or rural areas in the United States should be more open to allowing their children to do things outside the home than those in big cities? Why or why not? What other factors do you think adults should take into account when deciding what to allow their kids to do?
How old were you when your parents or guardians first allowed you to do things alone? What do you remember? How were you affected?
When you look back now, do you think the adults in your life made the right decisions about the ages at which you could handle various responsibilities, or do you wish you’d been younger (or older)? Why?
The writer says she hopes that the show will lead American parents to “consider the possibility that our cultural norms need a reset, or at least a rethink.” Do you agree? Do you think American parents (or parents in your country, if you are not American) are overprotective? Why or why not?
Want more writing prompts? You can find all of our questions in our Student Opinion column. Teachers, check out this guide to learn how you can incorporate them into your classroom.
Students 13 and older in the United States and Britain, and 16 and older elsewhere, are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.