My kids and I were hanging out at the cafe next door when a mom and her three-year-old daughter from the playgroup we go to popped in for coffee and cake. My daughter was so excited to see the familiar face of her playgroup friend that she grabbed a high chair and propped it up next to her. That girl brought along her dolly and my daughter wanted to play with it as well, despite the former’s obvious possessiveness with her doll. I hovered near their table sensing the impending disaster i.e. a doll tug-of-war, with coffee and cake crashing to the floor as a result. I reminded my daughter to take turns with the doll but she started to pull on it so I told her that we were going to go home if she doesn’t let up. The mom who, up to this point, was basically ignoring her daughter (and us) and engrossed in whatever it was she was reading suddenly looked up and talked to me about “kodomo no sekai” (children’s world) and how perhaps I should just leave the kids alone to work out what they need to. I don’t know how much she would still subscribe to kodomo no sekai should my daughter pull out her daughter’s hair.
In that particular playgroup of about 12 to 15 moms, I noticed that I was the only mom who actively restrains her child — I was the only foreigner, and the rest are Japanese. Whenever my daughter misbehaves (i.e. grabs a toy, hits another child etc.), I would pull her aside and give her a time-out. Several times, the leader of the playgroup would catch me before I pull my daughter out for a time out and tell me, “Daijobu. Daijobu,” meaning, ‘It’s okay’ and ‘just let her be.’ I didn’t feel like it was okay and I cannot just let her be.
I started to wonder, how, if ever, do the moms discipline their children. When do they intervene? From what I have observed at the playgroup, they seem not to. One little girl (about three years old) playfully hit the head of the playgroup leader while we were singing songs in a circle. I watched the leader continue smiling and singing, unmindful of the nuisance the girl was being. The girl’s mother didn’t try to stop her daughter either. Another boy (also three years old) ran around screaming at the top of his lungs and poking and provoking the other kids. His mother just continued chatting with the other moms. It was quite a surreal experience to witness all this.
Was this non-interfering style of parenting anomalous to this playgroup? I’m not too sure. When I talked to my friend who manages a cafe, she complained that it’s the Japanese kids who would run around like wild animals, disturbing the other patrons, while their parents continue eating and chatting, not doing anything to keep them in check. Foreign kids seem more well behaved, or at least their parents made sure they did. As if to provide me with a case in point, two boys (about seven or eight years old) with their shirts off, ran past me as they horsed around noisily. One of them teased my daughter by pulling her hair. “That’s not nice,” I said. He mocked my English. Their parents were nowhere to be found.
I find it ironic that in a society that values peace and harmony, Japanese parents allow their kids to be meiwaku (nuisance, troublesome) to others. Maybe they do discipline their kids but I just completely miss it because I’m expecting a certain way to do it. At today’s playgroup, a girl propped her feet up on the table right in front of me where we had our lunch set out and started to haul the rest of her body up. I said, “Sumimasen…” (“Excuse me”) to get the attention of the girl’s mother. The mother who was busy with their lunchbox turned to her daughter and told, no, pleaded with her daughter to get down the table. I was mystified. It almost strikes me as if the parents are afraid of their kids getting mad at them or not liking them. I wonder whether the parents have a different way of disciplining their kids at home versus in public, especially in a society where face is very important. I cannot know for sure. Japanese grow up to be pretty decent adults so when does the magic transformation take place? My husband who has lived with a Japanese family for a while said that his host mother would pretty much let her kids run wild because she knows that once they step into elementary school, they will shape up because that kind of behavior will not be tolerated.
So how much is too much parental intervention? How much is too little? What is a reasonable amount of intervention across cultures?
Editor’s note: An excellent book about parenting around the world that covers Japan in depth is Parenting Without Borders: Surprising Lessons Parents Around the World Can Teach Us by Christine Gross-Loh. From the book, I learned that the “non-interfering style” of Japanese parenting is very much a parenting philosophy rooted in their belief of the magic of childhood.