Benign neglect is good for kids

In Japan, kindergarten kids walk home from school without adults

PICTURE this. It is 2005, I arrive for the first time in Tokyo. I am making my way across the busy city when I encounter a small group of kindergarten children walking home from school. They are oblivious to my presence as they busy themselves crossing streets, picking up autumn leaves and chatting. There is not a supervising adult in sight, no older siblings. As a parent I feel a sense of foreboding - I worry about their safety.

I recount my experience to a Japanese colleague and exclaim, "There were no adults watching out for them." He is taken aback. "What do you mean, no adults? There were the car drivers, the shopkeepers, the other pedestrians. The city is full of adults who are taking care of them!"

On average, 80 per cent of primary-age Japanese children walk to school. In Australia the figure in most communities is as low as 40 per cent. Why? What happens in Japan that makes it so different?

At a community seminar recently I asked the audience to imagine themselves aged eight in a special place and to describe it. Most recounted being outside in their neighbourhood, with other children, out of earshot of parents: "My friends and I would go to this vacant lot and build our own cubbies" (Richard, 36); "We used to get all the neighbourhood kids together and go out on the street and play cricket" (Andrew, 39).

Author Tim Gill would call this parenting style "benign neglect" and for many of us, growing up in baby-boom suburbia, this was our experience. It made us independent, confident, physically active, socially competent and good risk assessors.

I asked the audience if they would give these same freedoms now to their own children. They all said no.

The big issue for parents around children's independence in the streets is "stranger danger" and child abductions. Statistics show almost all abductions are by family members, and the numbers have been going down for a decade. When I tell my audience the odds of a child being murdered by a stranger in Australia are one in 4 million, they answer like Andrew: "I know the chances are slim but I just couldn't forgive myself."

So is there a middle ground between "benign neglect" and "eternal vigilance"? There is in Japan and in Scandinavian countries, where children's independent mobility is high. While parental fear of strangers is still high in these countries, rather than driving children to school or other venues, parents and the community have initiated activities to increase their safety.

In inner Tokyo, a neighbourhood has parent safety brigades that patrol the streets around schools, shopkeepers are signed up as members of the neighbourhood watch program and the local council has provided a mamoruchi, a GPS-connected device that hangs around a child's neck and connects them instantly to a help call centre. These strategies are reliant on one critical cultural factor: a commitment to the belief that children being able to walk the streets alone is a critical ingredient in a civil, safe and healthy society.

If we want to start claiming back the streets and local parks for children then it's our role as community members to let parents know we are willing to support them and play our part.


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