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Why Japanese parents let their children fight

Sofia wakes from her afternoon nap, wide-eyed and raring to go. “Matias is coming over,” I tell her, and a toothy grin breaks across her face. She claps her hands together once, her signature expression of joy. Three months younger than Sofia, Matias is the son of a Chinese-Brazilian mother and an Uruguayan father. He caught my eye one Saturday at the playground we visit. I recognized immediately the Eurasian curve of his eyes, the tint of his skin, and the lankiness of his body; this boy looked as if he could be Sofia’s brother. We eventually became close with his parents and got together every now and then for a playdate.

The weather is hot and sticky, so I set up a kiddie pool on our rooftop terrace. The two toddlers immediately jump in, alternately splashing water out of the pool and at each other. They ride Sofia’s plastic car or kick a ball and then return to the water: harmless summer fun. Then the pushing starts.

Sofia begins nudging Matias’s shoulders from the front. She repeats the motion in quick succession, harder each time, like a bully from a bad kids’ movie. Matias doesn’t push back; he just steps backward, trying to keep his balance.

“We don’t push,” I explain in English and Spanish. “You can hurt your friend and he might not want to come over to play with you.”

 

She stares at me, with a smirk on her face. “Do you understand, Sofia?” Nothing. “Do you understand, Sofia?”

“Sí,” she says. I tell her to apologize and give Matias a kiss, and she runs over to where Matias and his mother are standing, though it seems primarily to escape me, and not because she is feeling any regret. Most days, our kids get along swimmingly, but there are times when one or the other picks a fight. This time, lucky me, my daughter is the naughty one.

Five minutes later, Sofia is at it again. Once again, I take her aside, a little more forcefully this time, demanding that she look me in the eye. She says she understands and that she won’t do it again. Yet another ten minutes later, when the children are fully dried and dressed, in a series of rapid-fire movements too quick for me to catch, Sofia nudges and then pushes Matias. He falls back, butt-first, into the little pool

Lucy and I swoop in quickly. Matias is unhurt, just wet and startled; he doesn’t even cry. I, on the other hand, am angry. I walk Sofia to the other end of the terrace, holding her tightly by the arm.

“We don’t push,” I tell her again. “You got Matias all wet, and you could have hurt your friend.” I make her stand there until she tells me (again) she understands, but still my daughter shows little remorse, which annoys me even more. Matias’ mother is gracious and quickly reassures the kids (and me), “It’s over, let’s do something else.” I run downstairs to get Matias a new diaper and a change of pants, mortified.

I can be a tough-cookie mom, especially in the presence of other kids and parents. I have a hawk-like sensitivity to Sofia’s misbehavior. My instinct is to jump in at the first sign of trouble to quickly defuse, correct, and punish before conflict even has a chance to blossom. So it was fascinating to hear about a school in Japan, where parents and educators think that fights between children can be good.

A friend sent me a DVD of a research project spearheaded by Arizona State University professor Joseph Tobin that compared preschools in three different cultures.

“You have to see this,” she told me.

In 1985, Tobin and Professors David Wu and Dana Davidson documented through video and later in a book a day in the life of preschools in Kyoto, Japan; Kunming, China; and Honolulu, Hawaii. They dispassionately observed and recorded the children’s arrival, their facilities, and their routine and activities at each school. Then researchers showed those videos to educators in the three countries and documented their reactions. From his office in Tempe, Tobin enthusiastically explained the motivation and the lessons of this compelling work.

“Preschools are sites not for children to grow up and learn, but to grow up and learn to be part of a particular culture,” Tobin said. “They try to produce citizens that are going to be able to succeed.” The goal of the project was to compare and discuss how the schools reflect and affect philosophies of child rearing, education, and larger social patterns. I got a kick out of seeing the different schools, witnessing different rituals and kid activities: origami in the Japanese school, blocks at the Chinese school, and role-playing at the American school. But the scenes that most mesmerized me were those that featured a little boy named Hiroki.

Hiroki was an adorable, smart, and very ill-behaved four-year-old who attended the Komatsudani preschool, located on the grounds of a 300-year-old Buddhist temple on the east side of Kyoto. He started his school day by pulling out his penis and waving it at the class during the morning welcome song. Often the first to complete his work, he yelled responses out of turn, sang aloud when everyone was quietly completing their workbook exercises, and imitated cartoon characters. Hiroki went on to use crayons to illustrate that he had a blue, a green, then a black penis. (The irreverent authors did note that four-year-olds in all three countries liked to joke about their genitals and their butts. “The only noticeable difference was that such humor was most openly exhibited in Japan, where the teachers generally said nothing and sometimes even smiled, whereas American teachers tended to say something like ‘We’d rather not hear that kind of talk during group time.'”)

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