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Japan's back-to-basics education -- shoelace tying

A family was climbing up the stairs at a local railway station here the other day when the 10-year-old son suddenly noticed one of his shoelace was undone. He stopped in his tracks, disrupting the flow of commuters, until his mother took him by the hand and led him to the top of the stairs.

But there, the boy stood firm -- until his mother stooped down and tied the errant shoelace.

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No one in the family seemed to regard the mother's action as anything unusual , but there are a number of Japanese who are beginning to be bothered such scenes.

Children so heavily mothered that they cannot even perform the simplest tasks by themselves are a social issue -- in part an unhealthy byproduct of the highly competitive, stress-filled japanese education system.

Teachers over the past few years have begun to be bothered by this, pointing out that the emphasis is on the theoretical to the detriment of the practical. The phenomenon may not be exclusively Japanese -- but there is a feeling that somehow it has got more out of hand than elsewhere.

The education commission of Wakayama prefecture, in western Japan, has just issued a set of recommendations entitled "learning how to use your hands."

It has done so in response to the number of "helpless" children who either cannot or do not sharpen pencils with a knife, peel fruit, or wring out a washcloth properly, for example.

But on close analysis, the prefecture is really only trying to teach modern youngsters what seemed to come naturally to previous generations.

One of the causes is seen as the over- whelming introduction in schools of such devices as electric pencil sharpeners and other simple-to-use tools and implements that some people feel have robbed children of their creativity (e.g., the widespread use of pocket electronic calculators to solve math problems).

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The spread of electric pencil sharpeners, for example, came about because schools once decided that penknives used to sharpen pencils were too dangerous and therefore began confiscating them.

A group of kindergarten teachers reported to the Japan Society of Pedagogy last year that modern youngsters have less ability in washing their faces, buttoning their clothes, and taking care of other primary necessities of daily life than did prewar children.

In virtually every basic skill, modern youngsters were up to two years behind , on average.

The group blamed this on the present stress in education on theoretical textbook learning to pass stiff examinations (even at kindergarten level) with resulting neglect of basic teaching practices, particularly by mothers.

Japanese mothers come in for a lot of the blame.

As one newspaper noted: What is the point of schools stressing training in manual dexterity if there is not the same commitment at home (the 10 -year-old-boy relying on his mother to tie his shoelace, for example)?

There is an expressive Japanese term for this phenomena: kyoiku mam (education mother), who pushes her children too hard to get them into snobbish elite schools, and who involved herself too much and too often in the lives of her children.

Sociologists blame technology, which has turned Japan from a predominantly agricultural society before World War II into a highly advanced state in which households possess many labor-saving devices.

In the old days, children could not be overprotected because their parents were too busy struggling to make a living to bother with much fuss. A child learned by observing the adults around him.

Today, the father is a stranger to his children, required to commute for one or two hours a day, in many cases, to an office or factory many miles away. In fact, the more he stays away from home them the more highly he is regarded as a breadwinner.

Unless she also spends a good deal of time commuting, the mother, who has very little to do around the house these days, may out of boredom devote herself boy and soul to raising her offspring.

Education critic Keiko Higuchi recently quoted one farmer who recalled: "When we were children, we would walk behind our parents, following them as they worked. Although they were too busy to pay attention to us we learned a lot by just watching.

"Today it's the other way around. Parents follow their children, ccarrying their satchels for them. How can children learn anything from their parents that way?"

Another writer describes the kyoiku mama, in fact, as really just an overgrown little girl still dres sing up her dolls -- and thoroughly enjoying it.

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