In a crabby Monday morning voice, Abigail announces, “MOM. It is NOT FAIR that Dora gets to go places and do things all by herself without even her parents and I DON’T. Humph!”
Referring, of course, to the children’s television show Dora the Explorer.
Would any of us be satisfied living vicariously through television? What’s the point of filling our children’s minds with stories of capable children if we fail to allow them to develop these capabilities themselves?
This is the first of two articles on cultures that teach their children to independently navigate their communities. Come back on Tuesday, April 2, for thoughts on walking to school in Switzerland.
In Japan, they have a tradition called “Hajimete no Otsukai,” meaning “the first errand.” And man, is it INTENSE.
I was introduced to the concept by a book on our shelves with the same title. It’s a sweet story of a little girl who demonstrates perseverance and bravery as she goes to the store to buy milk – by herself, for the very first time (there’s a lovely video of the book being read on YouTube here). She meets with difficulties like skinning her knee, a speeding bicycle, and being ignored once she arrives at the shop, but presses on and successfully completes her errand.
A small thing, right? Not for a small child. I discovered that real life is a little more complicated (surprise!) when I found a Japanese TV show based on the same premise. Several of the children break down into tears either during or after their errands – this is scary stuff for a little kid! And yet, you can see by the end that they are so very proud of these accomplishments.
I’ll admit it – I got completely sucked into these videos and stayed up wayyyy too late Sunday night watching them, one after another after another. Some of videos I watched were from the television show; some of them were amateur videos shot by parents hiding behind bushes. They’re all full of classic dramatic tension, and even with my very limited knowledge of Japanese I could hear myself cheering these kids on.
And yet… I was often uncomfortable. They’re so young! But as I kept watching, I noticed a few things. The mothers were often firm, but always encouraging. It was clear that this was not punishment – it was something these parents believed to be important for their children to accomplish. And it was remarkable to me how the children’s mannerisms changed as their journeys progressed. At the beginning they were almost always timid, looking back to their mothers, unsure. By the end of their journey (or shortly thereafter for some of them) they had their heads held high and their arms were swinging. They had done something they weren’t sure they could do, and they were fit to burst.
The irony here is that we are the Self-Esteem Nation. Collectively, we want nothing more than for our kids to feel good about themselves. We think that high self-esteem will make them happy, successful adults. But that’s not quite the direction that the research points. In fact, we’re learning that “[t]he habit of unearned praise interferes with learning, and giving an “A for effort” only succeeds in giving students an inflated sense of their abilities.”
What does build self-esteem? As the article I linked to above notes, “doing estimable things.” So… what type of “estimable things” are we opening up to our children? How are we helping them discover that they can do hard things? Going beyond parenting, how can we as communities support our children in this way?
I’ll end with the thought that began this whole inquiry for me. Every week, CJ brings home a newsletter from school in her Friday Folder. This note was included this past week:
We’re starting to work on recognizing coins and their value. I grew up with a corner store within walking distance of my home. I knew exactly what a dime was and how much it could buy. We’ve found that most of the children do not know the value of most coins. Please allow your child to sort your change and then name the coins including how much they’re worth.
We don’t have a corner store within walking distance of our home. I look at the neighborhoods we’re considering for a move into town, and wonder if we’ll ever have a corner store (not liquor store!) within walking distance of our home. CJ is going to have to learn the value of a dime by rote and the value of a dollar pegged on a farmer’s market donut. It’ll do, and she’ll grow up functional. But I can’t help but wonder what we’re missing out on by teaching them parceled-out skills rather than offering them whole experiences.
How do you help your kids discover that they can do hard things? What do you think of the idea of this rite of passage? What kind of challenging errand can you think of having your child run? And as a community member, what would you think if a three-year-old came into a store unattended?
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