Walking through Tokyo's labyrinthine Shinjuku Station can be a challenge for even seasoned commuters. Hundreds of exits, countless corridors and the constant crush of passengers in the world's busiest train station are not for the faint of heart.
Yet one can frequently spot school children no older than five or six years old — sometimes alone, other times in small gaggles — lining up among suit-clad men and women to take the train with no adult supervision.
It is a far cry from the situation in Canada, where children are inculcated on an upbringing of helicopter parenting, fostered by a regime of smothering government nanny-stateism. Placing children in a state of constant fear and anxiety, however, will ultimately have long-term negative consequences for both the children themselves, and for society as a whole.
The latest contretemps over children not receiving 24/7 supervision in Canada comes from Vancouver, where Adrian Crook, a single father of five, found himself under investigation by B.C.'s Ministry of Children and Family Development.
His offence? Allowing his four oldest children — ages seven through 11 — to ride the bus unsupervised. Crook took pains to ensure his children were prepared for the 45-minute transit ride to their school, going along with them at the beginning to make sure they were capable of handling the trips themselves.
But it was not good enough for the nosey parkers who anonymously tipped off child services, nor for the ministry, which required Crook to sign a safety plan agreeing not to let his children ride alone.
Rules for leaving children alone
Crook learned (well, we all sort of learned) that it is apparently verboten for children under the age of 10 to be left alone for any amount of time in B.C., whether indoors or outdoors. Moreover, two provinces — Manitoba and New Brunswick — prohibit leaving children under the age of 12 unsupervised.
Ontario law goes further, dictating that: "No person having charge of a child less than sixteen years of age shall leave the child without making provision for his or her supervision and care that is reasonable in the circumstances." This would seem to suggest that children under 16-years-old cannot be unsupervised, though the Ministry of Children of Youth Services maintains that there is no specific age at which a child can be left alone.
In any case, it is a far cry from the situation in Japan. Akiko Kitamura Suzuki is well familiar with letting children take public transportation unsupervised. A Japanese teacher in Tokyo, Suzuki is the mother of two sons, ages four and seven, and the elder of the two began taking the train alone this year.
"A little nervous" is how Suzuki described both herself and her son to me in a recent interview, although he soon became a confident rider.
Getting her son to take the train alone was not simply a matter of dropping him off at the station and hoping for the best. Rather, as is common practice, Suzuki rode with her son on a few occasions before shadowing him from greater distances — much like Crook did with his children. "When he didn't need to check back with me about anything, he finally took the train alone," recounts Suzuki.
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Such practice is commonplace in Japan. Indeed, a long-running hidden camera show that follows young children as they carry out simple errands around town has been a staple of Japanese TV for decades.
With a low crime rate and strong societal bonds — children feel comfortable that they can ask for assistance if needed — parents feel confident sending their children out into the community alone and are less inclined towards incessant Western-style helicopter parenting. Indeed, Suzuki herself recalls playing unsupervised in parks near her childhood home in Tokyo when she was just four years old.
Canada's crime rate is not as low as Japan's, of course, but it has been falling for the past two decades, and the notion that kids might be snatched out of buses or plucked from their parents' backyards is a scenario largely confined to fearful parents' minds. In reality, it almost never happens.
A generation of anxiety-ridden children
If one ever wondered from whence helicopter parents sprang, it would seem that they take flight from the hangar of the government nanny-state. Not surprising, given that a government with an inclination toward the Big Brother-esque has a vested interest in creating a generation of anxiety-ridden children, helpless and fearful of their own shadows. After all, who will help them deal with that anxiety and the other perils of childhood but the government, of course.
It is a sad commentary on Canadian society that across parts of the country, children as old as 15 may not be left unsupervised. While second graders freely ride Japan's rails unattended, parts of Canada will not accept nine-year-olds being left unsupervised for any length of time.
Incessant helicopter parenting and/or state intervention deprives children of important learning experiences and instead fosters a sense of learned helplessness. Rather than following the Japanese model and encouraging children to confidently take on new tasks, the trend in Canada is to leave them smothered and fearful.
Such is life in a society of helicopter parents and busybody bureaucrats working hand-in-hand to ensure children are protected from the terrifying and life-threatening condition known as childhood.