The 1 Thing Kids In Other Countries Do That Differs Greatly From American Kids

My son, age 14, loves watching the Japanese show ‘Old Enough’ on Netflix. The premise is that young children — ages 4, 3 and even 2 — are sent to run errands by themselves. Cleverly disguised camera crews trail them on their journeys while their parents wait for them at home or some other predetermined meeting point. The kids walk though neighborhoods, cross the street, navigate public transit and manage interactions with shopkeepers. One little girl carries her mother’s work pants to be mended. Another child purchases dumplings from a vendor.

The children’s focus and determination is captivating, and it’s impossible not to become invested in their success at the task. The kids are also adorable. Their reactions and facial expressions regularly crack my son up. But that isn’t the show’s only allure. The sheer implausibility of the whole endeavor draws him in.

“You would’ve never let me do something like this,” he observed. “You would’ve been freaking out.”

He’s not wrong. When he was 3, I likely would’ve sent him hang gliding before allowing him to cross the street alone. But my parenting instincts aren’t just a product of my own neuroses. They’re part of a culture, and here in the U.S. we’ve developed a culture of overprotectiveness and fear when it comes to kids acting independently.

By keeping them safely within arms’ reach, what are our kids missing out on? And what are some ways we could give them the opportunity to practice these vital life skills?

What kids’ independence looks like in other countries.

Japan isn’t the only nation where you can find kids navigating a town’s streets and public transportation without adult supervision.

Mei-Ling Hopgood lived in Argentina as a new mother, writing about the experience in her book “How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm,” in which she explores parenting practices around the globe. She noted that it was common in Argentina and in other countries to see children commuting to and from school without adults.

In some places, the reasons behind this particular independence are structural. Not all families have cars, so the only options may be walking, biking or taking public transit.

Another factor is parents’ level of trust in their community. When they send their kids out of the house, do they assume they will be safe and that the adults they interact with will be helpful and trustworthy?

In Argentina, Hopgood saw signs of trust in the community of surrounding adults.

“If a child is crossing the street, not with a parent, or if an older person is crossing the street and needs help, they will take your hands. For example, when I would take the girls back to Argentina when they were little, the drivers that would pick us up, a man they did not know, would take their hands and walk them to the car,” she said, much to the surprise of her daughters, who by then were living in the U.S.

“The thinking [is] that adults are there to help you,” Hopgood told HuffPost. This includes men and even men you don’t know, and was a real shift from the “stranger danger” panic that permeated her American childhood. It was “notable to me because of the bias against men being nurturing people, or they are the strangers you should be afraid of.”

Journalist Michaeleen Doucleff observed a similar kind of autonomy among the Maya, Inuit and Hadzabe children that she observed when researching her book “Hunt, Gather, Parent.”

Children in these cultures, she told HuffPost, “have enormous freedom to decide where they go, what they do and who they’re with. Parents and older kids are around them, observing and ensuring they are safe. But generally their movements and actions are their own.”

Again, there is a shared assumption that children are safe moving throughout the community.

This autonomy extends to kids setting their own schedules — deciding when do go to bed, for example (an often fraught topic for American parents that has generated the profession of sleep consultant). In general, kids were entrusted with a multitude of what an American would likely consider “adult” responsibilities: “They use knives and the stove. They help take care of younger siblings (playing with them, changing diapers, feeding them). They take care of animals or a family garden. They learn to hunt, slaughter/butcher animals, make clothes. They work at local stores. They climb trees, gather firewood or forage for food,” Doucleff said.

This trust in children’s ability to handle things includes managing their emotions and speaking for themselves. “They are allowed to get upset, have tantrums, without being scolded or forced to control their emotions very early,” Doucleff said. In addition, she said, “parents allow children to talk for themselves” rather than answering questions directed at them on their behalf or prompting them with what to say.

Other cultures also have a higher tolerance for risk when it comes to kids’ behavior. Helen Russell, author of the forthcoming “The Danish Secret to Happy Kids” (released already in Britain as “How to Raise a Viking”), observed in Denmark that children often take risks in their extensive outdoor play and are expected to resolve conflicts among themselves when they arise.

Likewise, children speak for themselves and are expected to dress themselves (including the all-important snowsuit!) and feed themselves, rather than being told by adults what to say, what to wear and when and what to eat.

Danish children, Russell told HuffPost, are allowed to pretty much “roam free,” and the same is true in other Nordic countries. “Icelandic children are all allowed to roam free until a state-sanctioned ‘curfew’ in the summer holidays, when Iceland enjoys 24-hour sun. So, come July, 13- to 16-year-olds are allowed to run wild until midnight, while children up to the age of 12 get to hang out until 10 p.m.,” she said.

Why it’s important to foster kids’ independence.

Letting children travel about, do chores and play without interference from adults can allow the adults more time to get their own work done and might seem to require less effort. Doucleff, however, noted that it’s not that parents are letting their children go unattended. “Adults keep a close eye to ensure kids are safe. So it’s not about simply doing less.”

The key difference, she explained, is that “parents don’t interfere with children’s actions and movements, especially during play.”

Kids, not adults, are the ones who truly reap the rewards of this dynamic. “Lack of autonomy is strongly associated with anxiety and depression,” Doucleff said, while “high levels of autonomy are linked to confidence, drive and all-around better mental health. In the communities I visited in ‘Hunt, Gather, Parent,’ children had these in spades.”

Autonomy, she explained, “enables children to learn adult skills ... . So they can be active contributors to their families and not simply attended to by their parents.”

We know that being able to contribute meaningfully can help kids feel a sense of mattering, which is protective of their mental health. Knowing that adults trust them to get from one place to another or use the kitchen knives helps them believe in their own abilities and gives them opportunities to “learn on their own, make mistakes on their own,” Hopgood said. Experience teaches them that they can figure things out for themselves and overcome challenges.

Russell explained that all the outdoor play kids engage in in Denmark, in spite of frigid weather, also has a positive effect on their well-being.

“Studies show that spending time outdoors improves well-being and cooperation, reduces stress, helps with concentration and evens out differences between low-achieving and high-achieving children,” she said.

Hopgood, a journalism professor at Northwestern University, noted that here in the U.S. we are beginning to see the effect of a lack of independence once these children head off to college. “Students coming to university, [their] maturity and responsibility level is years below what they were some years ago. Because of many reasons, but parents have done so much for them.” Without practice, kids lack problem-solving skills and confidence in their ability to tackle challenges without their parents’ help.

Ways parents can help kids gain independence.

There’s no need to move all the way to Latin America or Scandinavia to help your kids learn independence. Some communities, by their design, are more conducive to kids’ autonomy than others, and some places are also simply safer. But even within the confines of your own home, there are steps you can take to encourage this growth.

“It’s about having confidence in children’s ability to learn and grow at a young age without the need for constant interference from adults,” Doucleff said.

Doucleff measured her own interference in her children’s lives by counting how many times per hour she gave them commands. (“Eat two more bites, please.” “Give me the ball.”) She initially found that this number was 120 — which is in line with what most kids experience in Western cultures.

“In cultures with autonomous children, parents give only two to three commands per hour. So a hundred times fewer! It’s radically different than the approach that’s common in the U.S.,” she said.

She encourages parents to use their cellphones to record their own interactions with their children and count the number of commands they are giving now and make a goal of getting that number down to three per hour.

You can start slow, by having a low-command hour just once a day, perhaps at the playground.

She also recommends that parents take some time to observe their children. “See what their interests are but also their skill level. Then you know when to back off and be confident that they’ve got the situation handled or when to jump in to help if they need it.”

Focus on building up their independence in a specific domain by “teaching them skills they need to handle any dangers or problems that may arise in these environments,” such as using knives and electrical plugs, crossing streets or watching for cars. “Then schedule time in their week to simply be autonomous in these environments (without devices),” she said.

You don’t have to start by letting them roam free all afternoon. Instead, you might begin by letting them walk home from school with a sibling or group of friends. If they’re interested in cooking, you could plan to let them make breakfast for themselves on Saturday mornings.

“A little goes a long way,” Doucleff said. “Just adding a few hours of autonomy each week will help your child immensely. You’ll see a huge difference in their anxiety, behavior and overall confidence and self-sufficiency.”