Children in Japan aged 4 to 6 are increasingly playing with their mothers rather than with other children after they come home from kindergarten, questionnaires over the last 20 years by Benesse Educational Research and Development Institute show.
The questionnaires have been conducted by the institute every five years since 1995, sent to Tokyo metropolitan area parents and guardians of children aged between 1 1/2 and not yet in grade school. Since 2005, the questionnaires were expanded to households with children between six months and not yet in grade school. The fifth questionnaire, conducted last year, had over 4,000 respondents.
In the latest questionnaire, 82 percent of respondents with children aged 4 or older often played with their mother on weekdays when not at kindergarten, making it by far the most common response. Only 34 percent of respondents in 1995 gave this answer, but the percentage has risen with every edition of the survey. Meanwhile, the "plays with friends" response was 45 percent in the latest questionnaire results, down from 73 percent 20 years ago.
For nursery school students, who tend to be in school for longer each day than kindergarteners, only 9 percent were said to play often with friends on weekdays. On both the new questionnaire and the 1995 version, mothers of these kids were a more common playmate than friends, but the percentage of playing with friends was 25 percent. The number has fallen from one in four 20 years ago to less than one in 10 in 2015.
When kindergarteners and nursery school students are looked at together, the percentage of playing with friends in the latest results was 27 percent.
To explain these results, the institute points to the greater number of children in nursery schools, fewer neighborhood children to play with due to the low birthrate, and changes in the ways that mothers think. There are also more kindergarteners going to school by bus instead of walking, reducing chances for them to play with friends when going to and from school.
When asked what aspects of raising children they were putting a lot of effort into, the percentage of mothers who responded "having my child play with other children" has fallen somewhat in recent years.
Takashi Muto, professor of developmental education at Shiraume Gakuen University, says, "Play with friends now mostly takes place at nursery schools and kindergartens."
One 46-year-old Tokyo mother whose 4-year-old son attends kindergarten says, "There is nowhere for him to play, and there aren't other children nearby, so I send him to lessons every day so he will spend time with other children."
At home the boy plays cards or other games with his mother. She used to be worried because he was slow to pronounce words, perhaps because of having few chances to play with other children when he was younger.
"I wanted to raise him within a group, so I wanted to put him in kindergarten as soon as I could," she says.
Another 44-year-old mother shares similar opinions.
"Really I think it would be fine for (my child) to just be playing, but instead it's like I'm paying money to send them to lessons so they can play. I would like to let them play freely like in the past, but there aren't any parks, and I'm too worried to let them play without adult supervision, even in front of my house."
Now that today's parents need to watch over their children's play, she says, "If I feel so sick that I have to lie down, I have my husband fill in for me." Her 5-year-old daughter has allergies, and she says she "absolutely cannot" ask her friends with children to look after her in her place.
Yoshiko Ikari, professor of health education at Izumi Junior College, who 10 years ago conducted a joint study similar to the Benesse institute's questionnaire, worries that mothers taking on the role of playmate for their children will contribute to a feeling that raising kids is difficult. She says in that in her study, mothers of kindergarteners in particular tended to think of child-raising as their duty, and were unable to say anything to their husbands when they were troubled by it.
"Two- or 3-year-old kids need to get experience to become able to get along with friends. However, many of their parents and guardians don't understand this, having grown up in a society of low birth rates and not having had many chances to interact with other children growing up. With the social pressure not to cause trouble to others, it isn't uncommon for parents to avoid the possibility of fights between kids by choosing to play with their children themselves," Ikari says.
The paper Ikari co-authored predicts that children raised mostly in the company of their parents will experience a social development lag.
"Parent-child relationships always take the form of the child being protected by and at the same time being submissive to the parent. If, however, there are also equal-level relationships with other children and relationships with local adults that are diagonal, parents and guardians should have an easier time raising their kids," she says.
As the reality is that there is often little choice but for much of a child's time to be spent with parents, experts offered their advice on what can be done. Specially appointed professor of developmental psychology Nobuko Uchida of Jumonji University says, "Instead of interacting with their kids in an authoritative way that doesn't leave room for them to think, I want parents to value their children's individuality and share fun experiences with them. Enjoying the things the children want to do with them does more to encourage their vocabulary and intelligence growth than showing them early education videos."
Ikari says, "The five senses develop a lot during a person's early years. I hope that parents will walk through town with their children, sensing the colors and shapes and smells together, and not stop children from what they do because it seems 'dirty' from an adult point of view."