Hiroki, not yet 3 years old, is sent to the market for fish cakes and flowers, crossing busy streets as he walks more than a mile. That’s just the first episode of Old Enough!, the Japanese reality show now on Netflix where toddlers are dispatched alone to complete their first errands. The tension and humor in the series is that the kids are too young, though there’s a hidden camera crew and all sorts of safety measures in place. But the show also invites contrast with the household help each of us asks of our own children, which often doesn’t add up to much at all. A central premise of Old Enough! is that kids will prove to be more competent than we believe, if we trust them more than we think we’re supposed to.
Unbelievable as it might seem by today’s standards, American children have precedent for taking responsibility at tender ages. Massachusetts Bay Colony girls in the 1600s tended gardens, spun wool, and cooked meals, while boys helped in the field or shop. Puritan diarist Samuel Sewall recorded young children helping with the wash or driving wagons. His son Joseph walked to a nearby homeschool at nearly 3, with an older cousin assigned to carry his hornbook. At 10, Ben Franklin was at the family candle-making business in Boston.
Somewhere along the way, however, American families seem to have forgotten this history. Today, many parents aim to ensconce children in leisure-class lives, making their young years fat with fun and future-oriented education, yet scanty on housework. But sparing children dish duty in favor of lacrosse practice or another round of test prep is wrong for the present and the future: Kids lose the opportunity to learn useful skills, and those tasks get foisted onto somebody else — parents or people paid by parents. Young aristocrats who reach adulthood unequipped for the work of a household may rue those wasted hours.
Some Old Enough! fans might admire the show’s display of Japan’s superior infrastructure and low crime rates. But for most, the first reaction to watching a tiny child walk to a convenience mart alone is probably, How can parents let kids do that? The second is, Can a toddler really do errands?
Even when those thoughts occur simultaneously, they are not the same question. One stresses safety, the other wonders at capacity.
Many American parents allow kids to do all kinds of potentially dangerous things. We let them play sports. We let them get behind steering wheels when their teen brains are underdeveloped and bodies hormone-roiled. We give them cellphones. Still, because parenting trends prioritize individuality over ethical frameworks traditionally used to decide what’s appropriate for childhood, we double down on safety. If safety is the only limiting condition parents can claim on kids’ freedom — you can’t do that because you might get hurt — almost everything gets defined as a safety concern.
Why do we confuse doubts about capacity with worries about safety? Lacking time-tested social guidance on when, exactly, children are old enough to go to the store for milk, we defer to scientific expertise. Pediatricians’ dicta about frontal lobe development say that kids can’t process how to safely cross the street. But neurobiology alone does not explain why kids in some places are judged unready for errands if kids elsewhere on the globe are able. Not only international variations but domestic ones are telling: socioeconomic conditions have a way of removing the luxury of too much safety-sense.
A real question posed by Old Enough! then is not whether errands are safe or whether kids can do them, but whether kids should do them when the situation allows. The answer is yes.
Errands are public-facing chores. Their visibility may explain much of their power to elicit strong reactions. Inside a household, children may do more or less of the labor that keeps things running, but the details are mostly invisible. In contrast, everybody can see a kid walking the dog or taking a letter to the mail box. By all means, American kids should engage in family-helping tasks both visible and invisible.
Applause for the capable preschoolers of Old Enough! need not inspire fresh rounds of guilt that we have been standing in the way of kids’ budding independence. No, we haven’t. American children are developing independence just fine.
It is good for kids to do chores, just for the sake of doing chores. We need not make them what kids must do to earn more independence, or have them be the punishment for poor grades. Nor should parents’ ulterior motives be faulted, that they get to do less if kids do more. The real benefits come not to one or the other, but to us. Sharing common work makes commonweal — a good for us all. Kids and parents who share household work get more time together.
We already know kids can manage complex things, like sports, sheet music, and TikTok. Kids can do a lot. We need to remember what they should do — and why.
Agnes R. Howard teaches humanities in Christ College at Valparaiso University. She is the author of “Showing: What Pregnancy Tells Us about Being Human.” Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.