April 20, 2015

Old Enough!

Megan McArdle recently wondered why parents have become so paranoid of late, freaking out at the sight "children walking down the street alone." Alarmed enough to call out the cops to "rescue" kids from—nothing, actually.

"Why," McArdle asks, "has America gone lunatic on the subject of unattended children?"

Because the 24-hour news cycle fools us into treating national totals of rare events as the numerator in calculations of risk. Human beings are really bad at statistics, and when the denominator is a third of a billion, we discard it and substitute in Dunbar's number.

Dunbar's number is a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. These are relationships in which an individual knows who each person is and how each person relates to every other person.

In other words, the maximum number of people we're honestly capable of caring about, between 100 and 250. Populations larger than that become abstractions. So a single commercial plane crash is a national tragedy while 32,719 (in 2013) auto fatalities earns a shrug.

Stalin summed up the paradox when he observed that "One death is a tragedy; a million is a statistic."

Plus a much greater investment in fewer children that boosts their marginal value to infinity. Hence the impulse to lock them away in padded rooms until age thirty or so.

But not necessarily. Although even fewer kids are being born in Japan, they start walking to school by themselves in elementary school. If the school is too far away to walk, they'll have bus and train passes. This is reflected in popular culture, like Non Non Biyori.

It's true that the crime rate is lower in Japan, but the American parents who worry the most live in middle-class suburban communities that have about the same crime rate as Japan.

Crime isn't the real risk anyway. Japanese kids are more likely to get killed in freak traffic accidents (streets outside city centers in Japan often have no shoulders or sidewalks). But with a denominator of 120 million, they're as rare as school shootings in the U.S.

And they trigger calls for better traffic enforcement. And sidewalks. Maybe Japanese are better at math. They don't panic at the sight of small children walking someplace by themselves.

A good illustration of this comes from the NTV reality show, Old Enough! (「はじめてのおつかい!」), literally "My First Task."

In the show, children aged six and younger are given a task to accomplish and set out on their own. To be sure, there's a camera crew and a producer no more than a couple of feet away, and we don't see the kids who get lost along the way.

I'm sure there's helpful hinting and herding and location scouting going on too. But it's pretty impressive that they're allowed to tackle these tasks at all.

We're talking about walking to the store, picking the right item off the shelf, standing in line, and paying for it. Or taking a train to another stop and walking several blocks to find daddy's office. And then making it back home. By themselves.

The real payoff is the reaction of some of these kids when they realize what they've done. One little girl, upon finding the right item on a supermarket shelf, jumped up and screamed, "Yatta!" We did it! Like she'd just won the gold medal at the Olympics.

That's the pure delight that comes from accomplishing something concrete on your own.

George W. Bush was onto something with that "the soft bigotry of low expectations" line. I don't mean the "tiger mom" stuff, but getting to try (and fail) at the simple things, the increasingly rare privilege of not being treated like a Fabergé egg in everyday life.

Here's an excerpt from an original broadccast of Old Enough! It's pretty self-explanatory (and usually the camera crew does a better job staying out of sight; in recent episodes the cameras are all but invisible).

The show has been airing since 1991. Netflix has two seasons of more recent episodes edited down to fifteen minute segments.

Related posts

Land of the paranoid
Free-range kids
Free-range kids (1940's edition)
L.M. Montgomery's free-range kids

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# posted by Anonymous Dan
4/21/2015 10:29 AM   
I have memories of walking to Glen Warden school and crossing Swaggertown with its 40 mph speed limit and no crosswalk when I was in the 2nd and 3rd grade, making me 7 and 8 years old. I don't know if I ever did it alone or if Henry was always with me. What I do remember is that it was not a big deal to roam Indian Hills or to cross over to Horstman's farm.

At some age it become acceptable to roam anywhere reachable via the woods and neighborhood surface streets - which made it possible to get to Scotia and anywhere encompassed by RT 147 and Swaggertown, Spring and Baldwin Roads. And if one crossed Swaggertown one could get out to the RT 50 by cutting through the woods and neighborhoods.

The one lesson that was firmly implanted in my memory was this: Don't roam in a go-kart! Thanks Eugene for teaching that lesson.