Yesterday, my wife and I took our daughter to a city-sponsored health check slash child care consultation (suku-suku so-dan, meaning literally “quick consultation,” from the idiom suku-suku sodatsu, grow quickly or thriving). The event was free of charge for all 10-month babies in the municipal district. I was the only man present, and the event was entirely in Japanese. I guess I had better get used to this for the upcoming year.
The first part consisted of weight and height checking. Still on the low-weight side of things (7.1 kg, or a little more than 15 1/2 lbs), but slightly above average height (72 cm, 28 inches). At any rate, fairly straight-forward health check up to that point. We were directed to a larger waiting room (which was larger than our apartment, actually), where somewhere between fifteen to twenty mother-baby pairs were playing with various fluffy blocks, wooden cars, handmade rattles, and other toys.
After a wait of about half an hour, we were called along with six or seven other mother-baby pairs into an adjoining room. There, we were taught how to play games with our babies.
No, seriously, that’s what the point of the exercise was. How to play games.
First, we were treated to a five-minute lecture on the importance of playing games. Seriously. Trying to occupy a ten-month-old’s attention span during five minutes of nonstop lecture is bad enough without the distraction of seven other ten-month-olds to add to the sense of impending panic. At least twice the girl baby to the left of us crawled at breakneck speed directly at us, sending our daughter into a paroxysm of screams (which, thankfully, quickly abated. Easy come, easy go).
The person in charge of the lecture repeated the phrase “mother and child” no less than half a dozen times during the mini-lecture. “This is the most important time period of the baby’s life in which the mother bonds with her baby,” or similar words. The crucial nature of how playing with the baby would strength the relationship between mother and child was emphasized; no mention whatsoever was made of the father. It was as if the father’s role in raising the baby was simply not considered. No special notice was even made of my physical presence.
The lecture also stressed the importance of language development through the use of “motherese” (not that this term was used, but that’s basically what was discussed). We were given a piece of double-sided paper with lyrics to several baby songs and games, which we then tried out together in unison. One game was chanted to the tune of “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” and essentially translated as “So-and-so’s head…so-and-so’s head…is HIGH!” (at which point you hold the baby high in the air before bringing her down and snuggling). We also practiced playing “peekaboo” (which is called inai-inai-ba, or “not here, not here, BOO!”) by placing a handtowel over the baby’s head and saying “ba!” when the baby pulled the towel off her head.
The game-playing part ended with a short explanation of how to make baby rattles using household materials, such as empty plastic bottles and cut-up straws for noise and/or colors. We already had made several such toys, by partially filling bottles with water or inserting a single paperclip and sealing the bottle cap. We tried small cardboard boxes (an empty popcorn box for example), but our daughter started gnawing on the box corner. We got some good ideas for baby toys from this part of the event.
While we waited for “baby food consultation,” another child care worker tested our daughter’s reflexes and hand coordination by offering her several colored wooden blocks in succession, using a padded barrier to temporarily hide unused blocks from view. I’m not quite sure what the worker expected to see, but she seemed surprised when our daughter not only banged the blocks together enthusiastically, but also happily slapped her hands on the padded barrier, and then proceeded to lunge over the barrier and grab the bowl in which the blocks were resting. She then emptied the bowl’s contents, flung it around for a few seconds while shouting “ah! ah!” and started putting blocks back into it. I take it that meant that she passed the test (whatever it was).
The final part of the event was “baby food consultation.” We found this the most helpful, receiving tips on the kinds of food our baby would get the most nutritional value out of as she reached 12 to 15 months of age. Our daughter still only has six teeth (two on bottom, four on top), but the nutrition consultant didn’t seem worried. She gave us a handout with food preparation steps and advice.
Overall, an interesting experience. Japan has been experiencing a severe “baby shortage” in recent years, and with the breakdown of the extended family structure of traditional Japanese households and increased need for both parents to work full time, it makes a certain degree of sense of municipalities to hold “baby consultation” events. The dedication of the child care workers was impressive, to be sure.
On the other hand, I was disturbed by the absence of fathers, as well as the attitude that fathers were basically not expected to participate in the child-raising process. Placing all the stress on mothers, many of whom worked full time and some of whom had to take time off from their jobs to attend the Tuesday morning event, seems hardly fair. Well-intentioned as such events may be, they appear to address the symptoms but ignore at least one cause of the declining birth rate: men in Japan are not helping.
(We additionally have our own concerns about raising our daughter bilingually, and felt reluctant to play games only in Japanese. But that’s a topic for another post later!)
Don’t worry about the bilingual thing. If a child has normal cognitive abilities then raising them bilingual is not a concern. I take on this is that basically, for young children everything is a mystery to be explored. Adding another language to the mix is nothing more than adding additional vocabulary and grammar items that need to be explored. In short, most children just do it. My parents grew up that way, 95% of African children grow up that way and my children are currently being raised that way with no ill effects. However, for some reason monolingual countries always raise fears about this. I think that if a child has some cognitive developmental reason that makes communication difficult then perhaps these concerns have some merit. Beyond that there should be no worries.
I should be clear. I’m not saying that it is essential that children start learning a second language at a young age. It is not. In fact most studies would disprove that. But, I am saying that for most children, learning two languages at the same time is no more problematic than learning one so long as they are immersed in both those languages at home. Monolingual parents who speak the same language and then try to raise their children to be bilingual is often an experience that will end in frustration. Kids naturally mimic their parents and if their parents speak more than one language at home, the kids will too.
I was having a talk with a colleague of my wife’s (an American who’s been in Japan since 1980 and is fluent in Japanese), who gave three “patterns” of non-Japanese couples in which the mother is Japanese: father is fluent in Japanese, mother speaks only Japanese; father is fluent in Japanese, mother is fluent in father’s native language; father speaks only his native language, mother speaks father’s native language. (I can think of a LOT of other patterns, but this guy claimed these three were most common). He claimed that only in the case where the father speaks virtually Japanese does the child grow up bilingual.
His way of thinking is a bit old-fashioned IMHO (he’s 61). On the other hand, unlike Africa where people speak freely (more or less), Japanese society still has a lot of pressure to conform, particularly in later elementary school and junior high. I used to tutor jr high age kids who had lived overseas for five to six years and became fluent English speakers, who then were subjected to the public school system and totally refused to use English for fear of being mocked by classmates and teachers alike. Is it finally “cool” to be bilingual in Japan? I think it probably depends on location. Big cities like Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, probably yes. Everywhere else, probably no.
(I would not hesitate to add that my experience in the US has proven the same there as well!)
Research SEEMS to suggest that the one parent / one language model is more likely to produce a child with full proficiency in one language but only receptive competence in the other. As you say, every single family has its own unique circumstances so it is hard to be certain. We are speaking only English at home, although we allow Japanese TV, and in front of others who are not English speakers we speak Japanese (with English glosses) so as not to exclude. At the moment, our three year old is far stronger in English, but that will change when he gets to kindergarten next month.
People in the neighbourhood, kids included, are all fine… but it might be tougher for older kids. But who knows what it will be like in ten years time? I think it will be a lot more ‘normal’.
There is a bit of that – is the popular show ‘Okaa-san to isshou’ balanced out by ‘Oto-san suitchi’? But it is the reality – the vast majority of fathers are less involved in the day to day life of their children. Is society a reflection or a cause of that?
I notice in the neighbourhood where I live that dads are doing a lot with the kids, and hanging out the washing…. it’s changing for the better I think.