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Labour + Industry

Sweet, Sweet Fantasy Babies

What the escapist allure of ‘Old Enough!’ says about us.

Jackie Wong 3 May

Jackie Wong is a senior editor with The Tyee.

In the zippy opening sequence of the Japanese reality show Old Enough!, we rise from a toddler’s-eye view of a sunny green field as an ascendant xylophone melody moves up with the camera.

The show, which has aired in Japan for almost 30 years as Hajimete no Otsukai, or “first errand,” is based on Yoriko Tsutsui’s 1977 children’s book of the same name. Netflix, which recently divined it to algorithmic ubiquity on the streaming service no matter one’s usual viewing habits, has been responsible for its presence in the minds of North American audiences this spring.

People everywhere are talking about it. And with good reason: the Netflix brain trust was correct in their assumption that Old Enough! is the perfect show to watch as we struggle through an ongoing pandemic, the social scarcity it has wrought, and the creep of global fascism. In a world that seems to lack it so egregiously, we could all use a little tenderness and delight as we watch toddlers walk alone through the streets of Japan.

The first episode has a snack-sized runtime of under eight minutes. It opens in Kagoshima prefecture at the home of two-year-old Hiroki, who is practicing waving a yellow flag with his mother. She made the flag for him to stop cars as he walks to the supermarket, where she has instructed him to buy flowers for his grandmother’s altar, sweet curry and fish cakes. He commits to the two-kilometre round-trip, holding out the flag that says “Stop!” on the side of a highway. After returning briefly to the store for an item he forgot (who hasn’t?), Hiroki walks home, focused and serious.

Reality TV is appealing because it invites viewers to put themselves in the shoes of the real-life people in the shows. Old Enough! has created its own internet maelstrom because it invites audiences to wonder, “Could my kid do that?”

At a time when some parents of young children are utterly fried from parenting in isolation with few supports for so many pandemic years, Old Enough! arrives with a curious, fantastical promise. Somehow, somewhere in the world, help is available in the form of the very small people in your care.

It's appealing. But here in North America, it really is just a fantasy — and not solely for the reasons urbanists and anthropologists are suggesting. It’s not just about how cities are designed or how families raise their kids.

The problem is that we live in an individualist, often aloof culture that isn’t practiced in extending kindness to the people we encounter on an everyday basis.

In Vancouver, things are tight: most people are short of time, space, money, or all three. When people are out in public, they’re heads down, doing their own thing. If a person falls down in the street, it takes a while for someone to stop and ask if they need help. I’ve noticed a similar dynamic in the local parks, libraries and public pools in which I’ve spent my pandemic years with my four-year-old. Even in spaces designed for families, the sense is that everyone is pretty much on their own. It’s relatively unusual for parents to talk to one another. I’ve observed that we like to say nice things about kids, but we don’t live in a society that values children.

To be a parent in Vancouver is to live inside the scarcity that years of undervaluing the social safety net has brought about. Our family doctor is overworked and usually unavailable, so we’re frequent flyers at the urgent care centre. We scrambled for years before the clouds parted on the hundreds-long waitlists and our kid got into a non-profit daycare last fall. We are so glad for the support the teachers and kids there have provided for our family. But it feels like we’re sending him to an elite university because the margins are so tight for families to access child care at all. We recently won the public-kindergarten lottery after moving through the user-experience corn maze that only two parents who work on the internet could navigate without much trouble. People have asked if where he’s been placed at is a good school. The thought never crossed my mind. I’m overjoyed he gets to go at all, and that the bus ride and walk won’t be too long.

My partner is always the first to notice the exhaustion in my face, long before I tell him what’s going on. I see it in the parents around me. It shows up in funny ways, in both their presence and their absence. In a time of social distancing, I’ve taken care of more kids I don’t know than I have in my whole life. They are too little to serve themselves food or go to the bathroom on their own, but here they are at a birthday party in the care of my friend who is hosting and me, who thought I’d stick around. Or they’ve been sitting at the playground in an unattended bucket swing while they watch my kid play with his friend nearby. If they’re older, they run up and want to ride the teeter totter with us, staying by my side until we leave the park. Sure, I’m happy to compliment them on their climbing skills, to pull a sweatshirt over a tiny head of whispy hair because they’re getting cold and can’t do it themselves, or open a package of Pocky for the little person who’s asking. I know I’m a safe adult. But for all intents and purposes, I’m just some lady. I don’t know if you’re allergic to the grapes you’re asking me to fetch for you. I don’t know if your parents might think two juice boxes in a row is too much.

I think about the kid we found asea in a crowded room — their parent had dipped out of a birthday party, so we took care of them for the afternoon. Or the parent who brought their kid to the pool, pushed them towards the swim class of similarly aged children, then slunk into the hot tub. A lifeguard eventually bounced them from the scene. The parents of the kids in the class averted their eyes. It's shameful. We all knew we were there because we had hovered over the Vancouver Parks and Recreation website during the impossible 10-minute window in which spots in swimming lessons are available for booking each season before selling out completely. These aren’t fancy extracurriculars. These are important life skills, taught in public facilities, that are largely unavailable to the general population.

There’s a scene in the 2021 film The Lost Daughter where Nina, played by Dakota Johnson, confronts Leda, played by Olivia Coleman, about what to do with the sense of imprisonment and exhaustion she feels as a parent to a three-year-old child.

“I left,” Leda replies. “When the oldest was seven and the youngest was five, I left. I abandoned them and I didn’t see them for three years. It felt amazing. It felt like I’d been trying not to explode and then I exploded.”

It's a pivotal scene in a movie that tackles experiences of parenting that are often thought to be unspeakable: ambivalence, exhaustion and the fight to reclaim one’s self. One could say that Old Enough! addresses these issues in a different way, by offering a sly solution to the individual struggles of parenthood in the form of whole communities who protect and celebrate children while they move about the world.

One of the greatest joys of Old Enough! is bearing witness to the vast and affectionate community of caring adults who help the kids on their errands. The show sells a surface dream of self-sufficiency, but its success rests on the sometimes-invisible work of a supportive, connected community, from the camera crew who lights the way home for a little girl when it gets dark, to a bystander getting out of his car to help a little boy catch his apples from the market that rolled down the hill. Shopkeepers kneel to speak to the kids on their errands, tucking an extra treat in their bag for the journey home. They make sure little ones like Miro cross the street safely. Watching her walk away, the people in the neighbourhood who’ve known her for years start to cry. It’s moving to watch someone you love in their element, living their life.

These days, I spend Tuesday afternoons sitting on a window ledge at a public pool, the ad-hoc viewing area for parents of kids in swimming lessons. It is one of my favourite parts of the week. These are my son’s first lessons of any kind, and it is a rare gift to be able to sit back for 30 minutes and watch things unfold. The teacher possesses the kindness and hyper-intelligence of a person especially gifted at working with kids. He values them, believes in them and his actions make them feel safe. He holds my son as he eases him into the water, teaching him how to float on his back. He moves with an extraordinary tenderness that seems so easy. This kind of care always should.  [Tyee]

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