I recently lost two 14-year-old girls. We were at Sakura-Con, an anime convention in Seattle, and two of the three teens in our group went, with permission, to buy food. They didn't come back. And the Seattle Convention Center was packed with tens of thousands of people, most dressed like characters from , it seemed.
It was a frantic hour-plus before they returned, apologetically (phone had no data; convention center had no Wi-Fi; lost track of time) after I already had played through every hellish scenario in my mind. Were they abducted? Hit by a car? Forgot where we said to meet? Slain by a demon?
So it was with the memory of that lingering panic that I settled in to watch Old Enough on . It's a long-running Japanese documentary series where television cameras follow kids as young as 2 while their parents send them off on their first ever errand away from home.
The program is called Hajimete no Otsukai (My First Errand) in Japan, where it's been running for decades. A few of the tots we see on the Netflix episodes can probably drive by now.
Some of the errands are pretty simple -- in one, a 2-year-old toddled a few houses away to a dry cleaners to drop off his sushi chef dad's work whites. It took him a while, but he got the job done.
But in another, a boy had to wander home from his grandpa's mandarin-orange fields, make a container full of mandarin-orange juice from scratch by himself, and bring the juice back to his thirsty family. I'm a Gen Xer, from the age group famous for being left alone pretty much from birth, and even I can't imagine myself managing that as a preschooler.
Netflix has 20 episodes, and they're each around 10-20 minutes long. The show is subtitled, which is a dealbreaker for some, but I think it lends extra charm. The narrator is the saucy, sassy type I'm used to from Japanese shows. He tells it like it is, narrating "Are you sure this is a good idea, Mom?" as a mother waves off her youngster, and snarking, "The doors have opened, but the circuits haven't linked up yet" when the kid gets distracted by capsule-toy machines.
Hearing the parents speak to the kids directly without being dubbed adds to the drama. Even if you don't speak any Japanese, you can hear the worry and wonder in their tones as they try and direct their child on a task. They're not sure Little Hiroki can do it, but they can't let him know that.
Of course, there's been social uproar about whether this is safe. One kid had to travel a full kilometer (over half a mile) alongside a busy street, using a homemade traffic flag to cross traffic. And yes, it's Japan, not the less kid-friendly and more crime-wary US. But I'm a half-century older than that kid, and I got horribly lost in Japan once. Watching Old Enough, you'll almost certainly remember your own first ventures out of the house, and maybe think about how much responsibility you give (or don't give) your own kids, if you have them.
Bad things can happen anywhere and to anybody, but the show's producers say they check out the routes ahead of time, and you can see the camera operators following along (sometimes frantically racing to keep up with 2-year-old legs). Once, when a little girl dawdled and it grew dark, the film crew turned on their car headlights to light her way home. With that kind of adult supervision, I never felt the kids were really in danger.
And it's hard to argue with the sense of satisfaction the kids develop in themselves just running these errands. The chores are nothing to adults, but they're huge to the little ones.
My own teen daughter just came home from a school trip to the East Coast. Although it was carefully chaperoned, there were still moments when she had to feel like she was stepping out into the big world for the first time, on her own in Manhattan, able to go into any store within a reasonable distance without an adult nearby. It's a freedom that can't be explained, it has to be experienced.
Anyone can get lost anywhere -- I'm still unnerved when I think of our brief anime-convention disappearance. But Old Enough offers plenty of intriguing issues to discuss, and it's unadulterated, family-friendly entertainment, too. The world is waiting, kids.