Why Japanese Kids Go Out in Public Alone

The very thought of allowing one’s children to wander far from home is an anathema to most American parents (at least in urban areas). But the average Japanese doesn’t bat an eyelash at the sight of a child as young as nine riding the train or running errands, even in a sprawling megacity like Tokyo.

As The Atlantic reports, this practice is deeply rooted in Japan’s culture.

What accounts for this unusual degree of independence? Not self-sufficiency, in fact, but “group reliance”, according to Dwayne Dixon, a cultural anthropologist who wrote his doctoral dissertation on Japanese youth. “[Japanese] kids learn early on that, ideally, any member of the community can be called on to serve or help others”, he says.

This assumption is reinforced at school, where children take turns cleaning and serving lunch instead of relying on staff to perform such duties. This “distributes labor across various shoulders and rotates expectations, while also teaching everyone what it takes to clean a toilet, for instance”, Dixon says.

Taking responsibility for shared spaces means that children have pride of ownership and understand in a concrete way the consequences of making a mess, since they’ll have to clean it up themselves. This ethic extends to public space more broadly (one reason Japanese streets are generally so clean). A child out in public knows he can rely on the group to help in an emergency.

It makes sense when you think about it: in a society that values community spirit and teaches everyone to be responsible to each other, one can enjoy considerable safety. Not only is it unlikely that you will be victimized, but you can count on total strangers to look after you if something goes wrong.

Even the country’s infrastructure lends itself well to self-reliance.  Continue reading

Parenting German Style

Well, more specifically, Berlin-style. TIME offers a glimpse at how parents in the cosmopolitan capital of one of the world’s most progressive countries treat their children. I know there is no shortage of pieces exploring the wide variety of parenting styles in the world, but this one seems well worth considering.

Don’t push reading. Berlin’s kindergartens or “kitas” don’t emphasize academics. In fact, teachers and other parents discouraged me from teaching my children to read. I was told it was something special the kids learn together when they start grade school. Kindergarten was a time for play and social learning. But even in first grade, academics aren’t pushed very hard. Our grade school provides a half-day of instruction interrupted by two (two!) outdoor recesses. But don’t think this relaxed approach means a poor education: According to a 2012 assessment by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, German 15-year-olds perform well above the international average when it comes to reading, math and science while their more pressured American counterparts lag behind.

Encourage kids to play with fire. A note came home from school along with my excited second grader. They were doing a project on fire. Would I let her light candles and perform experiments with matches? Together we lit candles and burned things, safely. It was brilliant. Still, she was the only kid whose parent didn’t allow her to shoot off heavy duty fireworks on New Year’s Eve.

Let children go almost everywhere alone. Most grade school kids walk without their parents to school and around their neighborhoods. Some even take the subway alone. German parents are concerned about safety, of course, but they usually focus on traffic, not abductions.

The facts seem to be on the Germans’ side. Stranger abductions are extremely rare; there were only 115 a year in all of America, according to the most recent U.S. Department of Justice study. And walking around without parental supervision, or “independent mobility” as the researchers call it, is good for kids.

Party when school starts. One of my Berlin friends once told me that the three biggest life events are Einschulung (starting first grade), Jugendweihe (becoming a young adult) and getting married.

In Berlin, Einschulung is a huge celebration at the school—on a Saturday!—that includes getting a Zuckertute—a giant child-sized cone filled with everything from pencils to watches to candy. Then there’s another party afterwards with your family and friends. Einschulung is something children look forward to for years. It signals a major life change, and hopefully, an enthusiasm for learning.

Jugendweihe happens when a child turns 14. It involves a similar ceremony, party, and gifts, marking the next stage of growing up. With all the negativity heaped on adolescents, there’s something to be said for this way of celebrating young adulthood.

Take the kids outside everyday. According to a German saying “there is no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing”. The value of outside time is promoted in the schools, hence the “garten” in Kindergarten. It’s also obvious on Berlin’s numerous playgrounds. No matter how cold and grey it gets, and in Berlin it gets pretty cold, parents still bundle their kids up and take them to the park, or send them out on their own.

So basically, Berliners cultivate a lot of freedom and independence in their children, while also allowing them to have a lot more unbridled fun in their youth; even their institutions and infrastructure are geared towards this approach. This seems to be the right way to raise a child, especially as it makes the most out of these relatively easy and innocent — and formative — years.

What are your thoughts?

When An Online Friend Dies

As Cracked writer  observes is his brilliant piece, Five Things You Learn When A Facebook Friend Dies, “We’re the first era of humanity that has had to deal with death and the Internet, and grief for the passing of someone you only knew online.”

I recently lost a good Facebook some weeks ago, and it was not my first experience. This article is on point, and I highly recommend you read it. As social media and the Internet as a whole become integrated into our everyday and emotional lives, the issues and feelings described in this piece will be increasingly common. It is important to reflect upon the implications of connecting with someone so distant in some respects, yet so close in many others.

As always, feel free to share your own thoughts and reactions to the article or the topic as a whole. I will have to dedicate another post with my own reflections on the subject later.

Why Can’t Men Cry

Like so many men across generations and cultures, I was made to believe, by both culture and social conditioning that crying in all forms was “unmanly” and something only girls and babies do (which also says a lot about our warped views and expectations towards women). Whether it was inconsolable sobbing or merely shedding a tear, any manifestation of weeping was to be discouraged, ridiculed, or even shamed.

But as Sandra Newman of Aeon writes, this largely unquestioned norm is highly anomalous by historical standards. From the accounts of the Ancient Greeks and the Bible, to Medieval European romances and Japanese epics, men cried on every occasion and circumstance.

Historical and literary evidence suggests that, in the past, not only did men cry in public, but no one saw it as feminine or shameful. In fact, male weeping was regarded as normal in almost every part of the world for most of recorded history.

Still more remarkably, there’s no mention of the men in these stories trying to restrain or hide their tears. No one pretends to have something in his eye. No one makes an excuse to leave the room. They cry in a crowded hall with their heads held high. Nor do their companions make fun of this public blubbing; it’s universally regarded as an admirable expression of feeling.

As a love of history, it used to always surprise me how many powerful male figures — generals, kings, and conquerors — were reported to openly weep without shame or criticism. It was pretty much a given that crying was something all people did, period, and none of the manly men of history were an exception.

So when and why did this change? Well, as with so many other dramatic changes in social and psychological norms, it is not entirely clear, but there is one interesting leading theory. Continue reading

Boston Leads the Way in People-Centered Urban Planning

When it comes to making cities more liveable and efficient, many Americans tend to look abroad for examples, namely to places like Germany, the Netherlands, and Singapore. But it is nice to find a model closer to home, especially since it gives lie to the notion that America’s car-culture poses unique challenges that foreign cities do not face.

As PRI reports, Boston is one of the biggest and most prominent participants a new movement that is sweeping communities of all sizes across the United States. Continue reading

What Countries Fear The Most

Depending on where you live in the world, your foreign policy priorities will vary wildly. That is the conclusion of a 40-nation study conducted by the venerable Pew Research Center, which asked respondents to report their levels of concern about the following international threats: global climate change; global economic instability; ISIS; Iran’s nuclear program; cyberattacks (be it on governments or private institutions); tensions between Russia, its neighbors, and the U.S.; and territorial disputes between China and its neighbors.

Here is a map of the top threats perceived in each country, courtesy of The Atlantic:

Note: Malaysia and Venezuela both cited climate change and economic instability as top concerns.

The following chart breaks down the percentage of respondents that marked each a particular threat, with underlined figures reflecting the second-most pressing concerns.

You can see a more colorful and interactive version of the above chart at The Guardian

Needless to say, these results say a lot about a country’s political, social, and geographic circumstances. It is pretty clear why Ukraine and Poland would rank Russia as their top concern, given both current tensions and a long history of conflict with their larger neighbor. For similar reasons, Israel is most concerned about Iran, and Vietnam has many scruples with China (indeed, tensions between those states have been on and off for millennia).

Moreover, there are several clear regional trends: worries over climate change is strongest in Latin America, Africa, and Asia — in other words, the developing world. In contrast, fear of ISIS is most evident in the developed nations of North America, Western Europe, and Australia, as well as countries in the Middle East.

Somewhat surprisingly, economic instability is a secondary concern in many places, which might reflect the relative stabilization of most countries’ economies. A more cynical interpretation is that people are far more wrapped up in the sensationalism and gripping brutality of terror groups like ISIS than of more far-off and difficult to perceive threats like climate change or the economy.

Cyberattacks remain the least worrying for most citizens of the world, at least for now; things might change as technology because ever-more integrated into everyday day, or once a high-profile and calamitous cyberattack rouses greater attention and concerns.

Though Iran’s nuclear program was only a top threat for Israel, in more than half of the countries surveyed, a third or more respondents identified it as a matter of concern. (Note that this poll was conducted prior to the recent nuclear deal, so there is no telling how that has impacted public opinion.)

It is worth pointing out that this poll was only carried out in 40 of the world’s nearly 200 countries; thus it is more an approximation of collective global opinion. Much of Africa and Asia is left out, though it is safe to say that climate change would remain a top matter of concern, given the pattern among other developing states. (Central Asia would probably be a mixed bag.)

Given that climate change is a far more existential threat than ISIS (at least for any nation not near or involved with interstate tensions), this poll seem to confirm a longstanding psychological observation: as I noted in my statement about economic instability, it is far easier for people to be worried about something they can clearly identify and label as bad, then something that is harder to pinpoint, visualize, and understand. A brutal terrorist group is simpler and more visual than the complex dynamics — and for that matter solutions — regarding economics and climatology.

What are your thoughts?



In Less Than a Century, Humanity Will Number 11 Billion

It is widely known that the world population is growing at a rapid rate. Following over 200,000 years of existence, modern Homo sapiens reached one billion only in the 1800s. But since then, our numbers have increased with unprecedented rapidity, growing more than seven fold.

Courtesy of Wikimedia.

After passing the 7 billion mark in 2012, the world population is projected to hit 8 billion in just a decade. And according to the latest U.N. report, biggest growth spurt in history is yet to come: by 2100, the population is projected to hit more than 11 billion. That is around 6 percent higher than earlier forecasts. Continue reading

Most Young Homeowners Have Rich Parents

Yet another big indication of America’s declining social mobility is the fact that most young people who are financially well-off are simply those already born into stable and prosperous circumstances. As The Atlantic points out, the majority of Millennials who enjoy the rare benefits of homeownership, higher education without crushing debt, or ample savings owe such prosperous standing to their parents and families.

To start with, most of those who continue their education after high school have families that are able to help financially. A recent report from the real-estate research company Zillow looked at Federal Reserve Board data on young adults aged 23-34 and found that of the 46 percent of Millennials who pursued post-secondary education (that’s everything from associates degrees to doctorates), about 61 percent received some financial help with their educational expenses from their parents.

And yet, even with this help, the average student with loans at a four-year college graduates with about $26,000 in student-loan debt. Millennials who are lucky enough to have some, or all, of a college tuition’s burden reduced by their parents have a leg up on peers who are saddled with student debt, and they’ll be able to more quickly move out on their own, and maybe even buy their own house.

To be sure, there is no shame in getting help from one’s family. But it is important to acknowledge one’s fortuitous circumstances, and the contributions of others — from loved ones to society as a whole — that helped make it happen.  Continue reading

Finland and the Netherlands Experiment With Basic Income

Finland became the first country in Europe to announce plans for the implementation of a basic income program, according to the Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN). (To recap: a basic income is a universal, unconditional form of payment to individuals that covers their living costs. It allow people to choose to work more flexible hours and devote more time to non-work related activities, from caregiving and volunteering, to studying and leisure.)

The commitment consists of one line: ‘Implement a Basic Income experiment’, in the ‘Health and Welfare’ section of the programme.

The main party of government, the Centre Party and the new Prime Minister Juha Sipilä, are known to be supportive of Basic Income, but his new government partners, the populist Finns Party and conservative NCP have not spoken publicly on the issue. The scant reference to Basic Income raises some doubts about the government’s commitment to the policy.

So while it is far from a done deal — especially as the government has yet to release any further details, including a timeframe — it is nonetheless a big step, as few other countries, even in socially progressive Europe, have ever made such a formal, nationwide commitment.

Meanwhile, the fourth largest city in the Netherlands, another country that has been mulling over a basic income, is set to implement a plan of its own. The intention is not only to determine if a basic income will help people in absolute terms, but to see how its efficiency compares to the status quo of welfare payments. From The Independent:

University College Utrecht has paired with the city to place people on welfare on a living income, to see if a system of welfare without requirements will be successful.

Alderman for Work and Income Victor Everhardt told DeStad Utrecht: “One group is will have compensation and consideration for an allowance, another group with a basic income without rules and of course a control group which adhere to the current rules.”

“Our data shows that less than 1.5 percent abuse the welfare, but, before we get into all kinds of principled debate about whether we should or should not enter, we need to first examine if basic income even really works.

“What happens if someone gets a monthly amount without rules and controls? Will someone sitting passively at home or do people develop themselves and provide a meaningful contribution to our society?”

It is not surprising that the Dutch would lead the way in this experiment, given that they already have a well-established fondness for less traditional work environments — 46.1 percent of the labor force works part-time, the highest proportion in the European Union, and the nation is nonetheless broadly prosperous, with a high rate of life satisfaction. This is a country that already leads the way in work-life balance, so it would be interesting to see how this endeavor goes and whether it will catch on elsewhere in the country or beyond.

Finland and the Netherlands are the first developed nations to experiment with a guaranteed basic income since the 1970s, when Canada conducted a pilot project dubbed “Mincome” in a small town, with great results. Other experiments have been performed more recently in India, Namibia and Brazil, each one of them reporting measurable, positive outcomes in everything from poverty reduction to healthcare and general wellness.

As BIEN notes, there is an increasing interest in Basic Income worldwide, as well there should be: from mounting inequality to a dearth of well-paying and sustainable jobs, there are plenty of good reasons to consider at least trying out this streamlined and promising approach to alleviating poverty and improving quality of life.

The Countries With the Greatest Well-Being

According to the most recent Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, Panama once again takes the top spot in the number of people reporting high personal well-being, followed by Costa Rica in second place and Puerto Rico in third.

In fourth place was Switzerland, the top European country, which along with Austria (in ninth place) was the only non-Latin American country in the top ten.

The United States came in at No. 23, one spot behind Israel and one ahead of Canada.

This is the second time the report has been compiled (see the first one’s results here). It looks at how more than 146,000 randomly selected adults, spanning 145 countries and areas, respond to questions about five areas related to their well-being: purpose; social; financial; community; and physical. Here are the specific questions, courtesy of NPR. Continue reading