This month, Netflix released your new favorite show: Old Enough, an imported-from-Japan documentary program with a simple, perfect premise: In each episode, a different child is given an errand to run, alone, and we get to see how (and if) it is completed. Watching babies navigate something complex for the first time in their little lives is dramatic and heartwarming, but it also presents some real lessons for parents about how to raise independent children.
Children can often do way more than we let them
There’s obviously no specific age for when a child is old enough to go somewhere in public alone, but according to this poll, most parents say around 10. Judging by Old Enough, though, the real age of basic competence in children may be much lower.
The first episode is typical of the show. It features a boy who is two years and eight months old tasked with walking to a grocery store a kilometer away from his home, buying curry, meat, and flowers, and returning safely (a task that I’d screw up about half the time). In spite of not having reached his third birthday, the kid completes the errand with flying colors.
What if the kids are scared?
If you’re a parent, I bet you’ll be able to relate to Old Enough’s segments of parents helping children who are reluctant and fearful. Just like in real life, the TV kids sometimes flat out say “I can’t do it.” Most of Old Enough’s parents respond by acknowledge their child’s fear, comforting them, but still encouraging them to do it anyway, a strategy in keeping with the advice of child psychologists.
After their kids’ leave on their solo run, many of the parents report that they are scared their child will fail, but they let their kids be independent anyway, a struggle I’m sure every parent reading this can relate to.
You can set up independence tasks and keep things safe, too.
Old Enough makes very sure the children are safe—most of the “strangers” they walk past are actually crew members in disguise, and there are multiple camera people watching every move. But the kids don’t know they’re being coddled, and I think this is important.
You probably can’t afford to hire a small town to protect your child as they run errands, but you can casually send your toddler to a neighbor’s house to borrow some eggs and not tell them you’ll be watching them from your kitchen window, ready to swoop in immediately at the first sign of danger.
Don’t be afraid to take things seriously
Along with the illusion of danger, Old Enough presents kids with the illusion of seriousness. They’re told they’re running an errand, and that they should try their hardest to get it right because it’s important. It’s not presented to the kids as a game or play time. It’s not just good TV, it’s good parenting. It’s your place to teach your kids early that not everything is a game and that they’re capable of doing things that matter. Studies show that the most successful kids have parents who have high expectations of them. Luckily, what the expectations are is up to you. It doesn’t have to be playing the violin at the highest level: I expected my son to be a witty and entertaining cocktail party guest, for instance.
Encourage your child to talk to themselves
Old Enough mics up its child stars, and listening to their self-talk as they work through the steps of unfamiliar tasks is adorable and fascinating. They’re clearly identifying problems, thinking through solutions, and motivating themselves in a very adult way. This kind of self-talk in toddlers is called “verbal meditation,” and it’s a very good thing. According to studies, pre-schoolers who talk themselves through tasks do better than those who remain silent.