Parenting Dilemma: Jam Packed Action or More Family Time

The alarm clock rattles his nine-year-old body. He rubs his eyes and peers out at the clock. A blurry 6:30 a.m. stares back at him. He falls back under the covers in a sleepy stupor. Suddenly he hears his true wake up call, his mom shouting that breakfast is ready. Hurry up!

He shuffles downstairs. His eyes struggle to greet the day. He shovels down rice and sausage and chugs his milk. The daily routine winds into motion and he gets dressed into his uniform. It is time to trek to school.

Eight hours later, the school bell rings, but the day is far from done. He heads off to after-school tutoring, hungry and tired. Two hours of multiplication, Japanese characters, and English grammar
drills ensues. When it is all over, it is time for swim practice for another two hours.

Finally, it is 8:00 p.m. and time to head home. There is a homemade meal and thirty minutes to talk with his family. Then, he heads off to do homework and more drills for his extracurricular tutoring. He crashes around 11:00 p.m. to rest for another marathon day.

This is a snapshot day of many Japanese children who aim for good test scores and top universities. I even left out music lessons, weekends packed with tournaments and other sports, and various school events. The result is academic rigor, athletic advancement, and about one to two hours a day of family time.

American children often leave out the agter school academic programming, but the trend is to get kids as busy as possible. Sports, music, drama, clubs, fundraisers, youth groups, volunteer projects, and anything else to pad a resume and keep kids busy while parents work outside the home. There are definite benefits in academic achievement. There are also inherent consequences of less time with the family and less energy for the limited time together.

My children are young enough to advert this busy whirl of school and extracurriculars, but I contemplate what the future brings. What is best for my children? To fill their days with studies and practice to excel in academia, sports, and music? To ensure there is ample family time to bond with each other and teach them our personal values and customs? To rely on others to teach them in a standardized system or to make time for quality teaching by their family members? Is it possible to strike a balance and protect family time without compromising their overall achievement? For the U.S. to remain strong and competitive, should we imitate the rigorous schedule and study pattern of Japan? Or should we focus on fostering individuality and creativity, two traits that formed our nation into its present state? How about a fusion of the two approaches to optimize the benefits of each?

From my limited perspective, there is value in both approaches. I am currently developing a fusion-style parenting with my kids. For example, I already use flash cards and workbooks with my three-year-old to learn spelling and basic addition (more Japanese style).  I also have scheduled free play time throughout the day where they can do whatever they want.(American style). I personally hold family time as a top priority. I fear having to navigate the pressures when my children are older to fill the schedules so that family time is virtually squeezed out.  What do you think? What experiences have you had as a child or a parent that shaped your view on this dilemma? Do children thrive best through formal development in organized groups or through personal interaction with their parents and extended family?


  1. You just beautifully described something that I’ve been wondering about since I was a kid!
    I’m Japanese and although I grew up in the States, I know all too well about the jyuku-culture and how kids in Japan are expected to spend most of their time studying for jyuken. Luckily, I never had to experience that, and I always thought that it was horrible to force kids to be so studious. But after having lived in Japan for while, I’ve begun to understand how that system helps make Japan what it is today. I’m still not totally for it though, since I truly believe that kids can learn so much from free play, but it’s something I’ll have to think about as my daughter grows older.

    • Thank you for sharing. My husband is Japanese and I am American. I am currently living with my sister-in-law in Japan for a couple months and o experienced this reality first hand. I will struggle with the balance of academic excellence and maintaining time for family bonding and other positive influences. I couldn’t agree more that the system has a profound impact on what makes Japan so Japanese. Changes in the system would affect the strong allegiance to the community and impact academic results.

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