The one thing kids in other countries do is vastly different from American kids

By | March 4, 2024

My 14-year-old son likes to watch the Japanese series ‘Old Enough’ on Netflix. The basic principle is that young children – aged 4, 3 and even 2 years old – have to do their own shopping. Cleverly disguised camera crews follow them on their journeys, while their parents wait for them at home or at another predetermined meeting place. The children walk through neighborhoods, cross the street, navigate public transportation and manage interactions with retailers. A little girl wears her mother’s work pants to be repaired. Another child buys dumplings from a vendor.

The children’s focus and determination is captivating, and it’s impossible not to invest in their success at the task. The kids are cute too. Their reactions and facial expressions regularly cause my son to panic. But that’s not the show’s only appeal. The sheer improbability of the entire undertaking appeals to him.

“You would never have let me do something like this,” he remarked. “You would have panicked.”

He’s not wrong. When he was three, I would probably let him hang glide before letting him cross the street alone. But my parenting instincts aren’t just a product of my own neuroses. They are part of a culture, and here in the US we have developed a culture of overprotection and fear when it comes to children acting independently.

What are our children missing if we keep them safely within reach? And in what ways can we give them the opportunity to practice these essential life skills?

What children’s independence looks like in other countries.

Japan isn’t the only country where children can navigate a city’s streets and public transportation unsupervised.

Mei-Ling Hopgood lived in Argentina as a new mother and wrote about the experience in her book “How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm,” which examines parenting practices around the world. She noted that in Argentina and other countries it was common to see children traveling to and from school without adults.

In some places, the reasons behind this particular independence are structural. Not all families have a car, so walking, cycling or public transport are the only options.

Another factor is parents’ trust in their community. When they send their children out of home, do they assume that they will be safe and that the adults they interact with will be helpful and trustworthy?

In Argentina, Hopgood saw signs of trust in the community of surrounding adults.

“If a child is crossing the street, not with a parent, or if an elderly person is crossing the street and needs help, they grab your hand. For example, when I took the girls back to Argentina when they were little, the drivers who were going to pick us up, a man they didn’t know, took their hands and walked them to the car,” she said, much to people’s annoyance. surprise from her daughters, who now lived in the US

“The thinking [is] that adults are there to help you,” Hopgood told HuffPost. This includes men and even men you don’t know, and was a real change from the “stranger danger” panic that permeated her American childhood. It struck me because of the prejudice against men who groom people, or that they are the strangers you should be afraid of.

Journalist Michaeleen Doucleff observed a similar kind of autonomy among the Mayan, Inuit and Hadzabe children she observed while researching her book “Hunt, Gather, Parent.”

Children in these cultures, she told HuffPost, “have enormous freedom to decide where they go, what they do, and who they are with. Parents and older children are around them, observing and making sure they are safe. But generally speaking, their movements and actions are their own.”

Here too, the shared assumption that children can move safely through the community applies.

This autonomy extends to children setting their own schedules – for example, deciding when to go to bed (an often fraught topic for American parents that has spawned the sleep consultant profession). In general, children were charged with many of what an American would likely consider “adult” responsibilities: “They use knives and the stove.” They help take care of younger brothers and sisters (playing with them, changing diapers, feeding them). They take care of animals or a family garden. They learn to hunt, butcher/slaughter animals, make clothes. They work in local stores. They climb trees, collect firewood or search for food,” Doucleff said.

This confidence in children’s ability to cope includes controlling their emotions and speaking up for themselves. “They are allowed to get upset and have tantrums without being scolded or forced to control their emotions very early on,” Doucleff said. Furthermore, she said, parents “let children speak for themselves” rather than answering questions directed at them on their behalf or asking them what to say.

Other cultures also have a higher tolerance for risk when it comes to children’s behavior. Helen Russell, author of the forthcoming book ‘The Danish Secret to Happy Kids’ (already released in Britain as ‘How to Raise a Viking’), noted in Denmark that children often take risks during their extensive outdoor play and that some they are expected to handle conflicts between themselves as they arise.

Likewise, children speak for themselves and are expected to dress themselves (including the all-important snowsuit!) and feed themselves, rather than adults telling them what to say, what to wear, when and what to do. to eat.

Danish children, Russell told HuffPost, are allowed to virtually “run around freely,” and the same is true in other Scandinavian countries. “Icelandic children are all allowed to roam freely until a state-approved ‘curfew’ during the summer holidays, when Iceland enjoys 24-hour sunshine. So from July, 13 to 16 year olds will be allowed to roam freely until midnight, while children up to 12 years old will be allowed to hang out until 10pm,” she said.

Why it’s important to promote children’s independence.

Allowing children to move around, do chores, and play without adult intervention can give adults more time to do their own work and may seem like it requires less effort. However, Doucleff noted that it is not the case that parents leave their children unattended. “Adults keep a close eye on whether children are safe. So it’s not about simply doing less.”

The main difference, she explained, is that “parents do not interfere with children’s actions and movements, especially during play.”

Children, not adults, are the ones who really reap the benefits of this dynamic. “Lack of autonomy is strongly associated with anxiety and depression,” Doucleff said, while “high levels of autonomy are linked to self-confidence, drive and overall better mental health. In the communities I visited in ‘Hunt, Gather, Parent,’ children had these in abundance.”

Autonomy, she explained, “enables children to learn adult skills…. So they can make an active contribution to their family and not only be cared for by their parents.”

We know that the opportunity to make a meaningful contribution can make children feel like they matter, which protects their mental health. Knowing that adults are trusted to get from one place to another or use the kitchen knives helps them believe in their own abilities and gives them the opportunity to “learn on their own and make mistakes on their own,” Hopgood said. Experience teaches them that they can figure things out for themselves and overcome challenges.

Russell explained that all the outdoor play that children in Denmark undertake, despite the freezing weather, also has a positive effect on their well-being.

“Research shows that spending time outdoors improves well-being and cooperation, reduces stress, helps concentration and reduces the gaps between low-achieving and high-achieving children,” she says.

Hopgood, a professor of journalism at Northwestern University, noted that here in the U.S. we’re starting to see the effect of a lack of independence once these kids go to college. “Students who come to university [their] The level of maturity and responsibility is years lower than a few years ago. For many reasons, but parents have done so much for them.” Without practice, children lack problem-solving skills and confidence in their ability to tackle challenges without the help of their parents.

Ways parents can help children become independent.

There’s no need to move all the way to Latin America or Scandinavia to help your children learn independence. Some communities are, by design, more conducive to children’s autonomy than others, and some places are simply safer. But even within the confines of your own home, there are steps you can take to fuel this growth.

“It’s about having confidence in children’s ability to learn and grow at a young age without the need for constant adult interference,” Doucleff said.

Doucleff measured her own interference in her children’s lives by counting how many times she gave them orders per hour. (“Eat two more bites, please.” “Give me the ball.”) She initially discovered that this number was 120—which is in line with what most children experience in Western cultures.

“In cultures with autonomous children, parents give only two to three commands per hour. A hundred times less! It is radically different from the approach common in the US,” she said.

She encourages parents to use their cell phones to record their own interactions with their children and count the number of commands they give now and set a goal of reducing that number to three per hour.

You can start slowly, by having a quiet hour only once a day, for example in the playground.

She also recommends that parents take time to observe their children. “Look at what their interests are, but also their skill level. Then you know when to withdraw and trust that they have the situation under control, or when to step in to help if necessary.”

Focus on building their independence in a specific area by ‘teaching them skills they need to deal with any hazards or problems that may arise in these environments’, such as using knives and sockets, crossing the road of streets or looking out for cars. “Then schedule time during the week to simply be autonomous in these environments (without devices),” she said.

First of all, you don’t have to let them run free all afternoon. Instead, you can start by having them walk home from school with a sibling or group of friends. If they are interested in cooking, you can let them prepare breakfast for themselves on Saturday mornings.

“A little goes a long way,” Doucleff said. “Adding a few hours of autonomy each week will help your child tremendously. You will see a huge difference in their anxiety, behavior and overall confidence and self-efficacy.”


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