A Netflix show called “Old Enough!” stretches the boundaries of children’s independence to the bemusement of viewers — and child experts — who marvel: How young is too young?
While “Old Enough!” is long popular in Japan, it was recently acquired by Netflix, where 20 episodes are available to stream. The docu-series tracks children age 2-5 as they brave the city solo to buy groceries, drop off clothing at the dry cleaners and deliver lunch to a parent at work. Netflix describes the breakout hit as “the most wholesome show you’ve ever seen” in which “Japanese toddlers (ages 2-5) are sent on simple errands to help their parents and the results are just so pure.”
Critics on Twitter are asking whether minor subjects have actual agency in appearing on the show and if Japanese children are raised with an independent streak, as observed in a 2011 study published in the journal Global Studies of Childhood that compared children between the ages of 7 and 15 from Japan, South Africa, Tanzania, and Australia. Observers also raise questions about whether the children are truly alone — after all, they are being documented by a television crew.
Netflix did not immediately reply to TODAY Parents’ request for comment.
The show sits in the intersection of child development and entertainment, according to Dr. Fran Walfish, a Beverly Hills-based child psychologist and author of "The Self-Aware Parent," who has not watched the series.
During the first 12 months of life, the main psychological objective is attachment and bonding,” Walfish tells TODAY Parents. “From the ages of 18 months to four years, children test the attachment and separation process to ensure that parents are securely based as they take reasonably small and necessary steps to explore their immediate environments.”
Those "reasonably small" steps don't usually include venturing off to the fish market (episode four) or riding the bus alone (episode 16).
“One primary goal for children to conquer and master is an internal ringing bell that communicates, ‘I have moved too far from mom and dad and I am no longer safe,” Walfish notes. “It’s why toddlers often let go of their parents’ hands to explore and bring toys back to them. They’re reaffirming, ‘Will you still be in the same place the next time I leave?’”
Walfish says that cultural differences do play a role in how and when children become independent; in general, though, she says the important skills that develop during toddlerhood (like speech fluidity, comprehension of non-verbal cues and frustration tolerance) don't really get a chance to develop in extreme circumstances, like going to the grocery store alone.
Smaller achievements like dressing and feeding oneself are more manageable for toddlers, says Audrey Zwick, a licensed clinical social worker in Brooklyn, New York. And parents can help encourage independence — with the right words.
“For example, rather than saying ‘Wow, you’re the best kid ever,’ it’s better to say something like ‘I really liked how you hung up your coat on your own,’” Zwick tells TODAY Parents. She adds, “Parents can also ask themselves when completing a task for their child, ‘Is this something that my child could do on their own?’ Household chores are a perfect time to practice this.”
But developing independence is balanced. “The child will begin to learn, through the parent’s actions and words, that they care for them and will protect them, while also supporting independence in a safe way,” says Zwick. “And both will learn that these are not opposing thoughts, but ideas that go hand in hand.”
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