Building bridges

Trends & Culture - August 8th, 1975
The Plight of Kids With Too-Busy Moms

with Yurie Horiguchi

The subject of nutrition has loomed large on the local scene since the con­ference on that subject opened early this week in Kyoto.

In anticipation of the conference no doubt, several morning TV talk-shows have confronted dieticians and elementary school teachers with mothers.

The most striking cases brought to light were those of pre-teen children who are sent off to school with­out breakfast either because they got up late or mother had forgotten to buy bread (or butter, or eggs) the day before, not to mention milk.

Most Japanese children attending public schools receive a subsidized nutriti­ously balanced hot lunch, prepared by dieticians, but because of increasing costs, such lunches are continuous­ly being reduced in quantity.

There are many cases of children returning home to find their mothers absent, the door locked and only the doorstep to play on while waiting for her return.

So there is no oyatsu or tea, in the Western sense of the word, waiting for them on their return from school. But some mothers give their children money to “buy something” on their way home. And that “some­thing” is usually cheap candy of the child’s choice.

In many cases, especially if the father is out of town or not expected home for dinner, mothers provide their children with a bowl of ramen or instant noodles, neither of which contain the minimum necessary elements of nutrition.

These are the children who are almost incapable of following their lessons in school. They are generally pale and underweight and practically collapse during gymnastic classes. They are apathetic and more often than not, anaemic.

Teachers and dieticians get together to warn mo­thers individually when such children are noticed. The mothers are generally shamefaced but produce ex­cuses such as that they have taken part-time jobs to make ends meet, or that they “do their best,” etc.

The reason I am making quite a point of all this is because it has come to my notice that the same situa­tion exists to a certain ex­tent in some of the inter­national schools in Tokyo.

The circumstances which create this situation are, of course, quite different to those existing in Japanese homes.

If is not because mother has to work to make ends meet that she is absent at crucial mealtimes, but be­cause she is so enjoying the social whirl, her bridge parties and “cultural” classes that the child is neglected.

Tokyo’s social merry-go-round is especially dazzling to newcomers from small towns or cities where they were once just one of the crowd. Their ultimate ambition is to see their name in print in one of the so-called “society” columns so   that they can send home Xeroxed copies to relatives and friends, to show how “social­ly eminent” they have be­come.

I personally know one 8-year-old who had to make do for herself every day for five days in a row, with her parents off to parties night after night.

Mother, of course, was sleeping it off in the morn­ing, so the pre-teen went off to school with a glass of cold milk in her stomach, and a hastily put-together peanut butter sandwich— that being the easiest thing for her to make for lunch.

Not all international schools provide hot lunches and those that do are often expensive. Parents who are receiving subsidies from their companies for the education of their children are known to wince at the price because it is an “extra” that would have to come out of their own pocketbooks, even when they can largely af­ford it.

I may be old-fashioned, but it seems to me that the health and well-being of a growing child justifies what is often not even a sacrifice on the part of the parents. The latter can always eco­nomize in other areas, if they truly believe it to be a “sacrifice.” The child is totally dependent on them.

To get back to my little 8-year-old friend. She was given a can of soup to heat up and was told to make herself a sandwich if she was still hungry. On one occasion the mother pro­vided the child with a frozen TV dinner without specific instructions about heating it up. In fact, the child didn’t even know how to light the oven! (She phoned me.)

This child is now intimate­ly familiar with all types of prepared canned foods: soups, spaghetti, hash, corn­ed beef, lunch meats, etc. She wonders if fresh meat, fish and vegetables are really unavailable in Japan.

Teachers can spot an undernourished child at a glance these days. They question them, then speak to the mother. I am told that the latter, in general, resents the observations as an “insult.” Others go as far as to say that the child is “a born liar.”

There is nothing a teacher can do when faced with such a situation. If the parents don’t get the mes­sage, the child continues to suffer.

It may also be of interest to note that some live-in maids are too lazy to cook a nutritious meal for the children when the parents are absent, unless they have received specific instructions and ingredients.

The child left on her/his own with such a maid gets only instant foods such as ramen or noodles, or under the best circumstances, ham­burgers or hot-dogs. For dinner yet!