Coffee Chat: Old Enough

Have you ever seen videos of Asian kids coming home from school? Like this one.

I find these fascinating. Yes, the appliances they have look incredibly simple and efficient (and make me want to buy them), but can we talk about these kids? They seem way too young to be that impressively responsible. I couldn’t picture my 5-year-old prepping dinner or cleaning the house all by himself.

So, when surfing through Netflix shows to binge, I assumed Old Enough was the same thing.

Old Enough (or My First Errand in Japan) is a reality show featuring kids between the ages of 2-5, running their first independent errands throughout town. Despite our initial cringe of SENDING THESE KIDS OUT ON THEIR OWN for the sake of entertainment, their adventures are carefully planned and approved by their families well in advance. If anything were to go wrong (like missing a bus stop or walking home in the dark), the camera and production safety crews are ready to intervene. The show’s intention is to witness and celebrate these little kids as they accomplish something for the very first time. Although the tasks are fairly simple, it’s hard to imagine our own kids taking on the same challenges by themselves with no supervision.

I was intrigued with the errands these little kids were tasked with; including going to the store with a verbal shopping list, navigating an open-air fish market, or dropping things off at a neighbor’s house multiple blocks away. There are cars, busy streets, and the youngest kid so far is 2 years and 9 months old. How brave are they to go into stores, ask for help from strangers, and navigate to multiple destinations without getting lost ALL BY THEMSELVES?

Sure, the camera and production crews are present, but it’s not like the kids know that. As far as they’re concerned, they are alone doing something helpful for their family. The parents are also great to watch; motivating their little ones with pep talks or making up cheers to boost their confidence and morale. They demonstrate so much patience and provided reassuring hugs before their kids went on their journey. Of course, the parents are nervous and concerned for their child. Some watch from their homes until they can no longer see them in the distance, but they all believe that their kids are capable of doing what is asked of them.

This show gets its plot lines, drama, suspense, and comedy with color commentary from the snags these kids encounter while completing their errands. One child drops a fish on the ground because of a broken container, while another runs downhill to grab the fruit that slipped out of his grocery bag. One kid made it all the way to the store, forgot what he needed to buy, came home to get a reminder, and then went right back out.

Because they don’t have their parents nearby to assist, the kids must pull themselves together, problem-solve, and persevere to get their job done (the stuff that hero origin stories are made of). Although most of the youngsters are successful in completing their quest, there are a few that don’t (forgot an item, grabbed the wrong thing, got distracted by a mirror, etc.) with disappointment and tears written all over their faces. However, the outcome remains the same: they were greeted by their parents with hugs, kisses, and affirmations of a job well done.

Too Young to be Old Enough?

For the record, sending toddlers or preschoolers out on such quests are few and far between in Japan. The novelty of it is why this show has been around for more than 30 years. Is it a bit extreme in having this age range doing these tasks? Depends on where you’re from.

Around 18 months to 4 years of age, children start to feel secure enough to leave their parents, explore their immediate surroundings, and come back. This exploratory radius grows as they become more confident in navigating their environment and knowing that their caregivers will be right where they left them. Autonomy and independence can be culturally influenced. It is commonplace for kids in Japan to run errands once they are in grade school, and adults would most likely help a random small child in completing such tasks.

However, this show isn’t without its critics, especially from the States. Although many praise the premise of the TV series, some viewers comment that it is inappropriate to have children do things that they are not developmentally ready for and fear that parents may place unrealistic expectations on their kids after viewing the show. For comparison, toddlers are usually focused on mastering basic speech and language skills, and preschoolers are still working towards independently dressing themselves and completing age-appropriate household chores.

Conversation Starter

Here’s a kicker: my 5-year-old son wanted to watch the show with me. He could not believe that children younger than him were doing things that he had never done before, especially not without parent supervision. His curiosity opened the floor to many family talks about responsibility, cultural differences, and social norms.

In Japan, children are encouraged to do many things on their own, so much so that a common phrase among Japanese children is “I can do that myself!”

However, the push for this type of self-sufficiency is geared toward collective responsibility (if you can do things yourself, that means you can help the family and the community) over individual independence favored in the US. Use of security technology and automation also makes safety monitoring and supervision much more feasible.

An important thing to note is that many of the families featured on Old Enough live in rural regions with little traffic or in older neighborhoods with roads that barely fit a single car. So, when they send their little one off to pick up something from a shop, it’s only a few blocks away. Most likely, it’s a place that the kid has already walked to dozens of times and they are immediately recognized by the shopkeeper. This is a stark difference from our suburban or city-dwelling families who commute everywhere.

“If they can do it, so can I!”

As we continued to watch the series, my son started asking when he could do “old enough” things and started thinking up tasks that he felt comfortable doing on his own (like giving him a list of items to grab in each aisle while grocery shopping or doing self-checkout). He’s since continued this “old enough” idea, not just with running errands with me, but also with household chores and helping his younger sisters.

I think it’s also important for parents to realize that our kids aren’t meant to live in a bubble. There is obviously commentary from older generations that “kids nowadays don’t know how to take care of themselves”. Instilling that type of responsibility and personal care starts early and in the home.

Yes, this brings in conversations about letting kids be kids and stranger danger, but remember that we called this an exploratory “radius”. I definitely wouldn’t just tell my 5-year-old to walk to the store by himself cold turkey. That radius can gradually increase with experience and age, along with our personal boundaries. This allows kids to grow into their responsibilities and still feel like we are just close enough in case they need us.

If anything, this show has really challenged my original views of what kids can do regardless of age. Children are genuinely capable of doing anything when we believe in them and that’s what makes this show worth watching.

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