My husband and I met in a mountain village in Japan. (We were college students learning the language.) After we got married, my husband's career took us back to Japan—we raised our kids there for five years, and return each summer.
One aspect of Japanese culture that struck us was how close families are. What we didn't realize was that one way they stay close is by having their kids do chores.
Chores? As a bonding activity? My husband and I, steeped in American-style parenting (I'm from Pennsylvania; he hails from upstate New York), could hardly believe just how much was expected of children. My son Daniel's friend Taka, 10, has been cleaning the bathroom every week since second grade. “In Japan we have the firm idea that you shouldn't be a burden on others in society,” Taka's mom explained to me. Taka's sister, Mari, 6, has been washing vegetables and emptying trash since she was a toddler.
Japanese parents and teachers have faith that kids are capable, and believe pitching in nurtures belonging and responsibility. Our kids' preschool had 5-year-olds prepare an entire meal for their parents. (The kids pare potatoes and cut carrots!) My son's teacher regularly gave this assignment: Write down five things you did to help your family today. Japanese kids serve each other school lunch and get out brooms to clean up afterward. Every day.
So we no longer felt bad about expecting the boys to watch their sisters or make a meal. We started expecting all the kids to fold clothes and clear dishes.
Don't get me wrong: There are still socks on the floor. But my ideas about promoting family closeness have expanded beyond cuddles and notes tucked in lunch boxes. What I first saw as just this side of child labor, I now see as a valuable way to connect. We all play a part in taking care of one another, no matter where we are.