The Courage of Children

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.

a successful purchase!
a successful purchase!

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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8 thoughts on “The Courage of Children”

  1. GREAT article Meika! Sorry I didn’t give you my input beforehand! So hard for us in the states to even imagine a 3-year old running an errand or walking into a store by themselves in the U.S. Though not that young, I remember sending our girls next door to the convenience store (yes, I live in Japan where we sometimes live next to factories, convenience stores, doctor’s offices…instead of tidy little subdivisions filled with houses) when they were around first grade – 6 years old. So easy to do here but not sure I could have done the same there. On visits to my hometown in the U.S., just sending them over a couple of aisles at the grocery store to get something would bring the wrath of my mother (grandma) down on me. Oh…and the running to the convenience store for me became quite a habit and lead to a funny story that I like to tell about the difference between the U.S. and Japan. One evening hubby and I were out for an anniversary dinner. The girls were home (Japanese grandparents lived downstairs so we weren’t negligent!) and I think the older three were in 6th grade at the time. Imagine our surprise when we came home to a little platter of cheese, crackers and two ice-cold beers as our little anniversary gift! When asked where they got the beer they replied, “we went to buy it next door at the convenience store, of course!” One of those ‘only in Japan’ moments, for sure!

    I’m curious to know how parents challenge their kids to work out something on their own and will be watching this comments section for their ideas!

    1. Erin, I’m so glad you weighed in! I’d originally planned to publish the Japan portion of this next week, so I was definitely not expecting a response within hours. 🙂 I LOVE that story, both for the independence they showed – for the beer bit. A video I watched the other day had a little girl going to the vending machines down the street with her little stool and coming home with juice and beer – SUCH a difference from the U.S., where it’s easier to buy a gun than it is to get Target to sell you a bottle of wine without an ID.

      So, does everyone make a big deal over this “hajimete no otsukai” or is it more spotty than that? I had the husband ask one of his colleagues about it a loooong time ago and seem to remember him saying that it was a big deal, or that he’d remembered doing it as a child… but I don’t really remember exactly anymore.

      I’m interested to see what other parents have to say about how they might apply this in the States, too!

  2. This story reminds me that as a young girl I was allowed to walk to the penny store at the end of my street. Maybe older then three but probably 5 with my older brother. I new what a penny would buy me and so forth. I often am sadden by the lack of independence I can give my children. Due to our location they can not even play outside without an adult with them. At times I think some reasons is we do not live near and around family like I did growing up. My aunts, uncles, and grandparents all lived within walking distance. I feel we have been forced instead to live according to the job market instead of family values. I wonder what it would take to return to our roots.

    1. Isn’t that interesting, Renee? I didn’t have a corner store near me, but walked to school every single day when I was in kindergarten. It wasn’t that long ago; it’s not like we have to hearken back to our grandparents’ generation or something to see this. The breakdown of community does seem to be a piece of this puzzle… it’s really interesting. I wonder what it would take, too.

  3. Meika,
    Not everyone makes a big deal about the Hajime no Otsukai in the everyday neighborhood – or so this is my take – but the TV show sure brings a spotlight to it. I’ve watched those episodes from time to time and have to say that I also experience a HUGE range of emotions while watching. I think some of these kids are a bit too young to put them through that trauma. Let them be a little older is usually my lasting impression. In the West, the idea that ‘times have changed’ does need to be challenged I think. I think more so that WE have changed. I also think that media does a great job in feeding our fears. This is a great topic to discuss. Thanks for bringing it up.


  4. Fascinating article reminding me of the “free range kids” movement. (I admit to reading it only because you stopped by my blog and most “random” visits are trying to sell something.) This is however a hugely significant issue and the damage done to young adults who have helicopter parents is significant.

    1. I’m glad you stopped by, Maren, whatever the reason. I really appreciated your piece on Luke, the Syrian. I spent a semester in the Middle East in college that forever made these headlines personal. Both what you said and how you said it – yes, a thousand times.

      And I agree, the more I dig into this topic, the more it aligns with what Lenore Skezany is doing at Free Range Kids. Interesting stuff.

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