Casual Ties with Caring Adults: The Bonds Kids Need to Make Things Better

Society Family Economy

Children face tough challenges in their lives today, with some responding by refusing to attend school and others going so far as to take their own lives. The need for safe, comfortable places outside school and home is attracting growing attention. A look at some of the “third places” opening their doors to kids and their families.

Are There Neighborhood Adults Around?

Every Tuesday afternoon, the Terao Community Center in Yokohama’s Tsurumi Ward sees a steady stream of elementary schoolchildren heading for the meeting room. They are there for a weekly gathering run by the nonprofit organization Third Place.

A selection of board games, homemade brain teasers, and Nintendo Switch consoles are laid out on a table near the entrance. The children quickly select whichever game appeals to them and settle down to play.

I join a group of six 10-year-old girls playing what they call “Detective Game,” something like Twenty Questions. They invite me to share snacks brought from home. They are tough opponents, playing to win. Being no match for these experienced players, I am soon out of the game, and before I know it, an hour has flown by.

The children attending the weekly gathering enjoy playing board and video games or experimenting with makeup. (© Gotō Eri)
The children attending the weekly gathering enjoy playing board and video games or experimenting with makeup. (© Gotō Eri)

I ask the girls whether they play online games. Ten-year-old Mizuki answers, “Sure, ordinarily I do, but this is the only place for us to play games like this.” On the other weekdays, if they are not attending lessons of some kind, the children play in the park or log in to play games together online from their own homes . “We have tons of time on our hands,” quips Kanna, another of the girls in the group.

Things are certainly different now than in my own childhood, when we would ditch our schoolbags the minute we got home and scatter like jackrabbits to go out and play. Third Place head Suda Yōhei explains: “Nowadays, children need somewhere to congregate. My job is simply to open up the meeting room. After that, it’s up to the children to entertain themselves and make the most of this gathering place.”

Suda, formerly an employee of the Yokohama City Social Welfare Council, was assigned to the Terao Community Center as part of his community welfare duties, mainly creating programs for children. Busy parents were only focused on weekend sports or learning activities to which they could take their children themselves, so there was little interest in the activities Suda was trying to set up. “Parents have a hard time, but so do the kids. Things might improve if people came together to nurture children.”

He thought of how to get parents involved through their children, and one idea was to hold a cheerleading/dance class. Parents dropping their children off at the Center were invited to participate, and he soon had a roster of over 100 volunteers. His next idea was a summer camp. The camp has been running for three years now; the camp’s first intake are junior high school students now and have taken charge of planning the camp’s program. “Rather than simply helping children, I wanted to give them a chance to play an active role in the community, since they’re part of it too.” There is a clear connection between community-building and creating a place where children can hang out.

Sitting in on the weekly gathering and chatting with the children enables Suda to home in on subtle signs that things may not going smoothly for some of them. For example, one child might say “I had a fight with so-and-so, and I’m so cheesed off,” or “school lately is just sooo boring.” These are matters that children do not bring up with parents or teachers. But when Suda asks them why they talk to him, they say “Well, you look as though you have time on your hands.”

Compared to the vertical connection they have with parents or teachers or horizontal links with their peers, Suda maintains that children also need less structured relations. In the past, children formed casual relationships with adults, like older neighborhood ladies who gave them sweets, shopkeepers in the local shopping street, or youths they knew from around the neighborhood, but such opportunities are rare nowadays. Children now usually play at friends’ home on prearranged play dates. Adults also have fewer chances to interact with children.

Three years ago, Third Place, working with other organizations and community groups in neighborhoods with few gathering spots for children, opened the intercultural, intergenerational Tsumire Café. There is a study room for high school students and a place where seniors can gather to chat. The aim is to offer a “third place,” outside of home and school, where children and adults can get to know each other.

Third Place head Suda Yōhei. The Tsumire Café is an intercultural, intergenerational meeting place. (© Gotō Eri)
Third Place head Suda Yōhei. The Tsumire Café is an intercultural, intergenerational meeting place. (© Gotō Eri)

“There’s something wrong with a society where 500 schoolchildren kill themselves every year. We’re providing gathering places to stop children from taking that irrevocable step. There, they can find adults whom they can depend on. We’re on hand to reassure kids that things can be worked out.”

Parent-Child Relationships Change

Life can be difficult for children nowadays, with common problems like bullying or refusal to attend school, and gathering places are proving their worth. In 2022, the Nippon Foundation, which has supported the operation of children’s gathering places since 2016, surveyed some 300 households using 32 locations across the country for six months or more. Results showed that the undertaking had brought about positive changes all around. For example, at the gathering places, children had been able to ask for advice about problems or to improve their study habits. Parents also noted that they had begun talking more with their children about school or friends, and that they felt more connected with their community than before.

Nippon Foundation children’s support team member Takada Yuri notes that “initially, gathering places supported children with urgent needs, such as abuse or poverty. But in the past few years we’ve shifted our focus to community-building and supporting community centers where people of different generations can get together.”

Letting Go of Roles for a While

Lemon House is in a neighborhood of older homes and apartments a 15-minute walk from the bustle of Nishi-Shinjuku. The entrance to the 65-year-old former private home is crammed with footwear, and children and adults chat away in the front room. Leader Fujita Kotoko describes Lemon House as “a place where you can be yourself but be together with others at the same time. When you’re feeling good, you help others, and when you’re not, others can help you. It should be a place where people are free to be themselves—to nurture and be nurtured.”

Fujita hopes that people will have more options for gathering at places like Lemon House, depending on their mood or circumstances. (© Gotō Eri)
Fujita hopes that people will have more options for gathering at places like Lemon House, depending on their mood or circumstances. (© Gotō Eri)

After graduating from university, Fujita trained as a social worker and has been working in a facility supporting single-mother households. She has seen mothers at the end of their rope, with no family to support them and few financial resources, or suffering from mental or physical illnesses. Although there are publicly operated respite services where mothers can have their children looked after and take a breather, they can only be accessed a limited number of times and are not easy to use. Fujita’s work brought her into contact with women and children consumed by feelings of inadequacy at being unable to fulfill the “mother” or “family” roles expected of them by society, and she wanted to increase the number of short-stay facilities. “I wanted those women to know that even though they might not be able to cook well or would occasionally shout at their children, before being mothers, they’re people first. Sadly, most of them have no confidence in themselves.”

Fujita envisioned creating a place where anyone can set aside their role and take a moment to pause. Working with like-minded colleagues, she set up Lemon House, which opened at the end of 2021. There are 6 core members, and another 10 people who are on hand to plan gatherings or activities. A further 20 people, mainly in their twenties and thirties, take overnight shifts, apart from their regular jobs, to supervise short stays by children referred by the local authorities. Those individuals, ranging from child welfare officers to IT company workers, are registered with the local government as helper families. Some of them may have no child-rearing experience, but there is always someone else on duty they can turn to.

People can find a safe space here. They can sit off by themselves or start a conversation with someone if they feel so inclined. (© Gotō Eri)
People can find a safe space here. They can sit off by themselves or start a conversation with someone if they feel so inclined. (© Gotō Eri)

Lemon House is open to anyone—families in need of a short stay, youths who have aged out of the child welfare system dropping in casually, children who can’t attend school or choose not to, retired schoolteachers, or folks who have temporarily dropped out of the workforce. People from all sorts of backgrounds congregate, and talk about school or work rarely comes up. They share a meal and conversation flows, as they compliment the food or talk about their favorite manga.

A Helping Hand

On a Saturday at the end of September, a board game event organized by Tokeshi Takaaki, one of the adults at Lemon House who occasionally works short-stay shifts, is underway. More than a dozen people, from students studying social welfare to neighborhood junior high school students, are enjoying playing the detective board game Deception, trying to guess who among them is the criminal. I join in the fun and three hours go by in a flash, amid peals of laughter from teammates 20 or more years apart in age.

The 20 or so board games on offer that day all belong to Tokeshi, a small portion of the more than 100 he owns. Tokeshi, who works at a Tokyo children’s home, says that he originally had little interest in games or manga but began researching them in earnest because he felt that, in his role working with children, it was important to become immersed in their world. The children make a beeline for him when they get back from school, begging him to play games with them. He also keeps up with former children’s home residents, some of whom he has been in contact with for over a decade.

Working with children living in difficult circumstances, Tokeshi is currently preparing to set up a gathering place for them, not a physical location, but a kind of “big brother” arrangement.

Players study the game rules at the board-game gathering organized by Tokeshi Takaaki (second from left) at Lemon House. (© Gotō Eri)
Players study the game rules at the board-game gathering organized by Tokeshi Takaaki (second from left) at Lemon House. (© Gotō Eri)

Tokeshi believes that anywhere can be a gathering place, as long as children have a time and place where they feel secure and have trusted adults they can approach. He takes his games along, inviting children who need a place to gather, setting up anywhere from vacant school classrooms to the homes of families with children or offices of NPOs sharing his aspirations. If organizational support is needed, he uses his work knowledge or connections to approach the local authorities. Convinced that children need unstructured time they can share with someone, he makes a point of reaching out to children because he wants to give them that experience.

A report on children’s gathering places compiled by a subcommittee of the prime minister’s commission on child and family issues notes that such places “are essential to life” and that a lack of them is a major issue closely linked to problems like loneliness and isolation. With input from children and young people, the national government will adopt the report and reflect its recommendations in policies for creating gathering places.

(Originally published in Japanese. Co-edited by Power News. Banner photo © Gotō Eri.)

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