UNPACKING THE BACKPACK – Are American kids old enough?

When Old Enough, the Japanese reality television show from the early 90s, came to Netflix last year, American audiences were introduced to amusing and at times hilarious video clips of toddlers running errands around town while a camera crew followed them. The show, known as My First Errand in Japan, was even spoofed on Saturday Night Live with the toddlers replaced by pathetic twentysomething boyfriends.

The concept of the show Old Enough has me thinking, as both a parent and a teacher, about the expectations we have or don’t have for children at various ages. Certainly the ages at which we bestow responsibilities are inherently arbitrary. At age five we’re ready for school, and we should be reading by age eight. We can operate motor vehicles at sixteen, vote and serve in the military at eighteen, buy and consume alcohol or marijuana at twenty-one, and rent a car or hotel room at age  twenty-five. Obviously many people can handle these at the designated age, while many others are ready somewhat earlier or far later.

The latest news from studies about Generation Z, the kids aged eleven to twenty-six, is that they are trailing previous in classic markers of adult responsibility. For example, fewer kids are choosing to get a driver’s license at the age of sixteen. Fewer teens have jobs these days, and that has always been a hallmark of growth and maturity. Some delays may be positive – fewer are drinking earlier and more abstain longer from sexual activity. But the concern is that the current generation of young people are unusually risk-averse to the point of being limited in their ability to navigate the adult world.

Some people blame the helicopter and snowplow parenting that has become the standard of new parents over the past twenty years. New York Sun writer Lenore Skenazy raised the ire of parents and critics back in 2008 when she allowed her nine-year-old son to ride the subway home alone from Bloomingdales in Midtown Manhattan. She wrote a column about shopping with her son and then giving him a Metro card, subway map, and $20, telling him she’d see him when he got home. He made it home safely, of course. 

Many readers responded positively, noting the freedom they had in childhood, while others rabidly chastised her, criticizing the decision as reckless and even negligent. In her column Skenazy wrote about her feelings toward people who wanted to charge her with child abuse: “Half the people I’ve told this episode to now want to turn me in for child abuse. As if keeping kids under lock and key and helmet and cell phone and nanny and surveillance is the right way to rear kids. It’s not. It’s debilitating — for us and for them.” There is much truth to her insight. 

Skenazy actually got off easy, despite nationwide media attention, compared to the parents in Connecticut who were literally arrested for letting their children walk a few blocks to Duncan Donuts. Skenazy wrote another column about Cynthia Rivers of Killingly, Connecticut, who was arrested along with her husband after neighbors apparently called the police about young children walking unescorted. While the charges were dropped, the parents were later also investigated by DCFS for child neglect. 

The show Old Enough is quite telling as much for what it says about the society as it does about the individual kids or families. In Japan, elementary school students regularly take public transportation and high speed trains by themselves to school, or even to places like Disneyland. NPR reporter and writer T.R. Reid documented numerous stories like this in his book Confucius Lives Next Door. In many countries throughout Europe and Southeast Asia, the transition between childhood and adulthood can be smoother because it’s not complicated by the age of adolescence. Young people are often in apprenticeships and working full-time by age sixteen.

In fact, American society may actually harm kids more through being overly cautious and convincing them they are not old enough. Robert Epstein, an editor at Psychology Today published a book about the subject called The Case Against Adolescence – Rediscovering the Adult in Every Teen. Basically, Epstein suggests that childhood and specifically adolescence is a uniquely contemporary invention which actually hinders development of children in becoming adults and productive members of the community. Research suggests that for many young people, isolation from responsibility and separation from the adult world results in teens not actually learning to be adults. 

Michael P. Mazenko is a writer, educator, & school administrator in Greenwood Village. He blogs at A Teacher’s View and can be found on Twitter @mmazenko. You can email him at mmazenko@gmail.com