This video came to my attention a few years ago, and it triggered a bit of discussion on Facebook. Here’s how I introduced it:
“I have always been of the opinion that we; the affluent ex-British Empire ‘we’ (talking ’bout you too; USA); underestimate our children.
We underestimate them hugely, and stifle them in the same act. Childhood is extended by more than half a decade while initiative, adventure, and self-autonomy are hugely delayed.
The result, in my opinion, is a cohort of adults who are still in many ways just children in adult bodies, on some level always dependent on ‘instructions from above’ and lacking the courage to strike out in the creative or career directions that their instincts dictate.
Thus, I guess, we create perfect fodder for a capitalist/consumerist society. Japan is no exception, but curiously coming from a very different approach.”
THE FIRST TO RESPOND SAID THIS:
“Oddly enough, i blame bicycle helmets. i remember kids used to play everywhere when i was a kid. we’d do everything. run through the bush. off to the shops on our own. at playgrounds, if you saw a parent, it was weird. my friends and i wandered down to the park to play cricket. i’d ride a 1/2 hour by bike to the library on my own all the time. just for the journey. i’d go to the city on weekends on my own. then bicycle helmets became law and overnight, no one rode their bike for fear of being teased for wearing the only style available: big orange thing. schools no longer needed the fenced areas they used to lock up your bikes. it seemed in that year everyone stopped going to the parks, too. people these days blame tv and computers. but i think it was different. in that year we discovered ways to shame kids out of physical exercise AND teach their parents to suddenly be afraid that behind every bush, every door, every piece of park equipment, lay a pedophile. kind of sad how fear and humiliation killed childhood, I think.”
AND SO IT WENT ON. I REPLIED; “An interesting viewpoint, Lucas Thorn. I remember when those helms came in, and yes: Total Dorksville, man! (I waited for more stylish lids to arrive before buying my first. And I still have it!).
“But are you blaming the pustule rather than the plague?
“As someone who is more ‘chronologically endowed’ than yourself, I most certainly grew up in the same era (except we also did everything barefoot, in the snow, while carrying a hundredweight of coal each). We were free-range kids before they even started using the word ‘kids’, and parents largely left us to it.
But once in school, the message was different. Power & control was kept at the top, and delivered from the top. ‘Discipline’ mean getting strapped/canned/humiliated. One did not learn a single thing off one’s own initiative – it was handed down from above. Except (in my case) surreptitiously observing, at every available occasion, girls’ underwear.
The curriculum itself seemed to encapsulate the entire relationship – children had zero autonomy, zero choice, and were give zero opportunities to prove worthy of winning any. And it has been this way in our culture since the Victorian era at least. (They who invented school.)
“Perhaps what was really going on was that children were free to make their own amusements in the bush or behind the bike-sheds because in fact society didn’t care about them enough. How many were rendered basket cases, or worse, by brain injuries sustained from falling off a horse or a bicycle? That was “just life”. In the workplace: no safety equipment, no ear muffs or goggles (unless welding). Dust, danger, and dangling planks to stand on. It was all part of the same mind-set. Workers, and children, were considered disposable.
Then the see-saw swung. We began to care about ourselves more, about our children more. Which is a good thing. But now we’re stuck on the other side – with everyone bemoaning the result.
“But at core – nothing has changed. Curriculums are still handed down, never shaped by a child’s individual interests or talent. We come out of the sausage factory as I said : ‘..a cohort of adults who are still in many ways just children in adult bodies, on some level always dependent on ‘instructions from above’ and lacking the courage to strike out in the creative or career directions that their instincts dictate.’
“And the helmets? As ugly as they were they were not to blame; it was the self-same system that imposed them from the top. Rebellion trigger! Backed up by your peers that, without realising it, were acting out an age-old ritual of humiliation designed to keep people conforming. That’s the true ugly heart of it.”
NEXT UP: KERSTEN: “I agree, Lucas. I think bike helmet introduction was a huge turning point in the cessation of normal childhood (as well as the removal of see-saws and slippery slides). As a kid, we went everywhere by bike, and never in the company of an adult unless it was a planned event or function. Even bbqs, we tore around in the dark on our own while the adults stayed near the barbie to socialise. I remember one such event hanging up a dartboard (I was 11) and a brown snake rearing its head from between the louvres. We kids dealt with the snake and buried it in the yard somewhere. I told Mum and Dad on the walk home (they had a fit, in their defense). We’d moved to Brisbane when helmets came in and I remember no longer riding anywhere, nor friends or my siblings and their friends. We would walk if it wasn’t too far but most of the time we stayed home or got a lift. The helmets were dorky and ugly, and not comfortable. Things did seem to change from that point on.”
BACK TO LUCAS: “it really died overnight, Ged. maybe anecdotal, but EVERYONE had bikes when i was a young. i was still in primary school when they brought in the helmet law and it died overnight. the next law which firmly put a nail on it was they made it illegal to ride on the footpath, which is where we mostly used to ride as kids. they told us to ride on the road, with a helmet. so, naturally that’s going to be both unsafe and ridiculous-looking for a kid. we went from riding all over the place to just staying home. or, as Kersten said, getting a lift to our friend’s place or not going at all. people blame the computers and internet, but at the time, we didn’t have that. i’d personally feel there’s more an argument that the internet/computer thing got more popular just because we needed something interesting to do at home… i remember the ninetendo and sega getting more popular just because parents were starting to want us to stay at home.
SO THERE YOU HAVE IT: people are so easily sidelined by their own agendas. An opinion about bike helmets, of some relevance, managed to entirely sideline a discussion that barely happened.
But as I rediscover these gems, I can at least preserve them here.
Please – I’d like to hear from you. Are bike helmets to blame for stifling childhood in the West, or was it always stifled? Can a better model of parenting be found in Japan, or are we merely seeing the polished surface of their own version of the bike helmet?
For more insights into Japanese education , read Bruce Feiler’s “Learning to Bow”.