Hiroki, not yet 3 years old, is sent to the market for fishcakes and flowers, traversing busy streets as he travels over a mile. This is only the first episode of Old enough!the Japaneses reality show now on Netflix where toddlers are sent off on their own to do their first shopping. The tension and humor of the series is that children are too young, although there is a hidden camera team and all sorts of security measures in place. But the show also invites us to contrast with the domestic help that each of us asks of our own children, which often does not amount to much. A central premise of Old enough! is that children will turn out to be more competent than we believe, if we trust them more than we think.
As incredible as it may seem by today’s standards, American children have precedents for taking responsibility from an early age. In the 1600s, girls in the Massachusetts Bay Colony tended the gardens, spun wool, and cooked meals, while boys helped in the fields or in the stores. The Puritan chronicler Samuel Sewall recorded young children helping to wash or drive carts. His son Joseph walked to a nearby homeschool at nearly 3 years old, with an older cousin tasked with carrying his book of horns. At age 10, Ben Franklin was in the family candle-making business in Boston.
Somewhere along the way, however, American families seem to have forgotten that history. Today, many parents aim to lock children into a leisurely classroom life, fattening their young years with a fun, forward-looking upbringing but with few household chores. But sparing children dishwashing duty in favor of practicing lacrosse or some other series of test prep is bad for the present and the future: children lose the opportunity to learn useful skills, and those tasks are imposed on someone else – parents or people paid by parents. Young aristocrats who reach adulthood unequipped for household labor may regret those lost hours.
Some Old enough! fans could admire the show’s display of Japan’s superior infrastructure and low crime rate. But for most, the first reaction to seeing a small child walking alone to a convenience store is probably, How can parents let children do this? The second is, Can a toddler really run errands?
Even when these thoughts occur simultaneously, they are not the same issue. One insists on security, the other on capacity.
Many American parents allow children to do all sorts of potentially dangerous things. We let them exercise. We let them drive when their teenage brains are underdeveloped and their bodies are full of hormones. We give them cell phones. Yet because parenting tendencies prioritize individuality over the ethical frameworks traditionally used to decide what is appropriate for childhood, we double down on safety. If security is the only limiting condition that parents can claim on the freedom of children — you can’t do that because you might hurt yourself — almost everything is defined as a security issue.
Why do we confuse capacity doubts with safety concerns? In the absence of proven social guidance on exactly when children are old enough to pick up milk from the store, we rely on scientific expertise. Pediatrician sayings about frontal lobe development say that children don’t know how to cross the street safely. But neurobiology alone doesn’t explain why kids in some places are deemed unready to run errands when kids elsewhere in the world are able. Not only international variations, but also national variations are telling: socio-economic conditions have a way of taking away the luxury of too great a sense of security.
A real question asked by Old enough! it is not a question of whether the races are safe or whether the children can do them, but whether the children should do them when the situation permits. The answer is yes.
Groceries are public chores. Their visibility may explain much of their ability to elicit strong reactions. Inside a household, children may do more or less of the work that makes things work, but the details are mostly invisible. On the other hand, anyone can see a child walking the dog or delivering a letter to the mailbox. By all means, American children should engage in both visible and invisible family chores.
Applause for preschoolers able to Old enough! doesn’t need to inspire new rounds of guilt that we’ve prevented the budding independence of children. No, we didn’t. American children develop their independence very well.
It is good for children to do chores, just to do chores. We don’t need to make it what kids need to do to gain more independence, or make it the punishment for low grades. Nor should we blame the ulterior motives of the parents, namely that they do less if the children do more. The real benefits do not accrue to one or the other, but to us. Sharing the common labor does the common good – a good for all of us. Children and parents who share household chores spend more time together.
We already know that kids can handle complex things, like sports, sheet music, and TikTok. Children can do a lot. We need to remember what they should do – and why.
Agnes R. Howard teaches humanities at Christ College, Valparaiso University. She is the author of “Presentation: What pregnancy teaches us about being human.” Send your comments to [email protected]