Paul is from Alabama but has spent his adult life in Hawaii and Japan. He teaches, translates, and writes about life.
Walking to School in Japan
When I first moved to Japan, I was shocked at how young some of the children walking to school on their own were. And not only that, but these little warriors lug heavy, old-fashioned (but stylish) leather backpacks called a randoseru. It's a tradition for grandparents to buy these $500 to $600 backpacks for the grandkids, usually black for boys and red for girls, and the children use them for all 6 years of elementary school.
Randoseru and Other Backpacks
In recent years, colors are becoming more varied, and with the influx of foreign residents, it's not uncommon to see children with hand-me-downs or even other types of backpacks. My wife even called our daughter's school to make sure it was okay to carry something other than the traditional bulky randoseru. They said it's fine as long as both hands are free when walking with it and as long as it doesn't hang to the ground when she hangs it up in the classroom. So, my daughter alternates carrying her randoseru and her pink Patagonia backpack.
Toukouhan: Neighborhood Groups
I had this image of small children all walking to school on their own in Japan. I wondered what kind of parents would let their 6-year-old child walk to school alone. But the reality is that they are actually in well-organized neighborhood groups called toukouhan, or groups that walk to school together.
Children that live in the same neighborhood and attend the same elementary school are able to be a part of a group that walks together. There are usually a couple of 4th, 5th, and 6th graders that look after the younger 1st, 2nd, and 3rd graders. The group is usually around 4 to 8 children nowadays, and the younger children walk in the middle with an older child being in the front and back.
Along the route to school, they end up following and being followed by other neighborhood groups. It ends up looking like a group of 50 kids by the time they get to near their school. So, it's nearly impossible to be left alone.
But in these groups, children have their own little worlds: children that don't get along with one another, 5th and 6th graders that don't want to have to babysit 1st graders that they barely know, everyone in the group having to wait for the slowpoke. This system is just one of the many Japanese social components that reinforces the "togetherness" and "holding in your true feelings for the benefit of the group."
The child that lives farthest swings by the next child's house, and then those 2 children stop by the next child's house, and so on. It's sort of a "coming of age" when your child becomes a 1st grader and starts walking to elementary school with the neighborhood group.
My Daughter's First Experiences With the Group
My daughter is wrapping up her first year of elementary school, but it was nearly a year ago when she first met up with these strangers: a 6th grade girl, a 6th grade boy, two 2nd grade girls, and my fresh 1st grade daughter. Lacking hardly any shyness like her mother and father, my daughter was excited to meet new people.
My wife was concerned more about the harsh reality of children's relationships, particularly with young girls. Bullying, telling secrets, and being left out are just of few of the many things that can seem harmless to some adults but can be traumatic and life-changing to many impressionable children.
I was more concerned with my young daughter walking with older boys who might do "who knows what" while walking along roads with empty houses and apartments. And the very real reality of one of the thousands of people rushing to work in the morning crashing their car into unknowing kids walking on the sidewalks of sometimes very narrow roads.
Raising an Independent Daughter
By any means, we had our list of concerns. But we also were (and still are) very adamant about raising an independent daughter who can take care of herself. So, we had no choice but to trust our daughter to be able to deal with things using her 6 whole years of life experience, and we needed to trust our instincts. Fortunately, our daughter has a small group of decent children in her group, but she did have 2 small problems in the first few months that she dealt with on her own.
1. Being the Last to Join the Group
My daughter's group that walks to school together was made up of a 6th grade boy (who decided to start going by himself because he didn't like being the only boy), a 6th grade girl, and two 2nd grade girls. My daughter was the last to join the group since we're the last house. But as the 3 girls would come walking toward our house, my daughter felt sort of like a third wheel, or a little left out, since the other girls were already chatting.
Step 1: I Waited With Her
Feeling insecure, my daughter would ask me to come wait with her. The first few days, I'd wait outside with her. She would tend to wait behind me or beside me until I said "Good morning" to the other girls first. My daughter was waiting for me to "break the ice" for her.
Step 2: I Let Her Handle It Herself
I decided to stop waiting with her and let her figure it out. Children are very resilient and set their standards based on their own experiences. As adults, we try to teach our children and judge them based on our own experiences and standards.
Less than a month after I stopped waiting with her, my daughter would tell me to go back inside, or not be there when her friends came. Although a part of me felt sad for her not wanting me to be out there with her, I couldn't have been more proud of her.
2. Being Stared At
About two months after she started walking with the other neighborhood girls, my daughter had this "thing" with one of the 2nd grade girls. The girl is nice enough and quite calm (at least in front of adults). But my daughter started having an awkward feeling when the girl came around, and I began to see a side of my daughter that I had never seen.
It began with my daughter just saying she didn't want to go to school. I asked her why and she said that she just didn't want to go. I knew she liked school, so I pried a little more and found out that she didn't like one of the 2nd grade girls in her walking group, whom I'll refer to as "M."
Step 1: I Gave Her an "Out" But Didn't Make It Too Appealing
It was a delicate situation for my young daughter, and I had to tread lightly, but not too lightly. I didn't want to give my daughter an easy out, but I also didn't want to force her into an uncomfortable situation. This was the perfect situation to be a great experience for her to learn how to deal with her own problems. I told her she could stay home if she wanted (NOT REALLY), but she wouldn't be allowed to play games, play with toys, or watch TV. This gave her an "out" of her problem, but it definitely wouldn't be a fun day at home.
Step 2: We Talked About the Problem and Considered M's Perspective
So, I asked her what exactly she didn't like about walking to school. She said that "M" was always staring at her backpack. I told her that "M" always walks behind her, so where is she supposed to look? "She probably thinks your backpack is cute," I replied. I continued to explain to my daughter that when she sees someone with a cute dress or bag, she looks at it, right? She said "yes," so I told her that "M" is doing the same thing.
My daughter continued to say that she thought it was weird how "M" just stared and didn't say a word. So, I asked her how she'd feel if "M" stared and said mean things. She said should wouldn't like it at all. I ultimately just told her not to worry about what are people are doing or saying.
She wasn't 100% convinced, but walking 20 minutes to school with someone staring at your backpack is better than a 10-hour day at home without toys, games, and TV. Within a couple of days, they were back to chatting with each other as they walked to school.
The Takeaway: It's Important to Step Back
As a result of just communicating with my daughter and stepping out of the picture, she was able to handle two personal problems on her own. I can't help to think that if I had just let her stay home and play when she didn't want to walk with "M," then it could have led to a vicious cycle of not wanting to go to school, falling behind in studies, and eventually affect her teenage years and possibly her adult life.
Or if I had talked to the other child and tried to solve problems for my daughter, it might set her on course to always be looking for someone to defend her, help her, or solve her problems for her. Children are much stronger than we think, so let them hone their problem-solving skills during their crucial developmental years. One of the hardest things for the parent of a young child is to know when to step away and let your child figure things out.
"There are only two lasting bequests we can hope to give our children. One of these is roots, the other, wings. "
— Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Anya Ali from Rabwah, Pakistan on February 01, 2020:
Good article - I learnt about Japan and parenting at the same time!