Parenting expert Dorothy Law Nolte enjoys a huge following worldwide; her 1998 book, “Children Learn What They Live,” sold over 700,000 copies in her native U.S. and has been translated into 36 languages. The Japanese version was a steady seller — until February this year, when the father of a certain 3-year-old girl brought it to public notice and sent sales through the roof.
The girl was Princess Aiko, and the father, Crown Price Naruhito, who, at a rare news conference, read out the poem that Nolte penned some 51 years ago and which served as the inspiration for her best seller. Suddenly, “Children Learn What They Live” became required reading for Japanese parents, and PHP Institute Inc., which publishes the Japanese version of the book, says it has sold 2.25 million copies, 780,000 since late February.
So what is so special about Nolte’s message that the Crown Prince felt compelled to share it with the nation? The poem he read out was first published in 1954 in a newspaper in Torrence, California, where she wrote a weekly parenting column. The 19-verse poem, which starts with “If children live with criticism, they learn to condemn,” goes on to connect children’s aggression with an atmosphere of hostility at home, their sense of respect with the kindness they are shown, and so on. The book elaborates on how to instill each of the values listed in the poem, citing a number of real-life situations parents face — such as kids crying out “I’m hungry!” while they are preparing a meal — and creative ways to deal with them.
Nolte visited Japan for the fourth time earlier this month. This time, unlike on previous visits, she had a chance to spend half a day with local children at Suginami Daishi Elementary School in Tokyo. The 81-year-old author, who has three children, two grandchildren and six great-grandchildren, shared her thoughts on her work, parenting and much more in this interview with The Japan Times.
Why do you think your book has become so popular around the world?
I feel the book met a need. Even just the title is an introduction to a need. As you think, children learn what they live, parents get thoughtful just with that, and think, “Oh, I’d better read that.” So even the title sparks a reaching for the book, at least to look at it, to examine. If they do that much, I think they’ll be trapped. (Laughs) I think they’ll move into wanting to explore the book, which means they are exploring their role in parenting, aren’t they? And that’s very important.
When you visited the elementary school, did you notice any cultural differences between kids in the U.S. and in Japan?
No. Kids are like kids, really and truly. They get restless, they want to move on. Or they totally absorbed if you do it the right way, which is what we want — their attention . . . I just simply realized that kids are kids and they work in certain ways, and if we can meet their basic real needs, they will be better kids all the way. They’ll learn faster and they’ll be more human.
At the school, you gave a lecture to educators, in which you talked a lot about kinaesthesis.
We have a whole kinaesthetic sense. Right now you are sensing the chair you are sitting on, through your muscles and your legs. That’s registering. We are continually in touch with our environment in that way . . . Kids are very kinaesthetically organized in a sense that, when I ask them, “Now you sit there and don’t move,” that is a very strong statement and almost impossible for a child to obey. And parents need to understand that movement is healthy . . . Kinaesthesic awareness is to be cultivated. We need to get in touch with that sense of how we’re feeling right now . . .
In Japan, many people are opting not to have kids. Parents are often very isolated and have few people to share problems with. Do you think parenting is more difficult today?
A parent who decides ahead of time that this is hard, whatever it is, probably it’ll be hard. If she comes in with the attitude of, “I can handle this,” she is going to have a different response to the situation . . . Sure, there are ups and downs in parenting, that’s the way it works. Children can be unpredictable, that’s the way it works. And moms can feel overloaded, that’s the way it works. The important thing is how we feel about all that. If we take it in our stride, understand it’s part of the game, then that’s one thing. But if we begin feeling sorry for ourselves, getting mad at somebody, then we’re dealing more with our internal affairs rather than really dealing with parenting . . .
What do you think are the biggest challenges for parents today, compared to when you wrote the poem?
As far as kids and parents are concerned today, I feel like I had an easy job. I didn’t have to deal with this television routine, video games and computers . . . Parents need to know what’s being shown, rather than turning the child loose to watch any program he wants on TV . . . A family is a showcase in learning. Learning about each other, learning about the self, learning the rules, good living, learning what works best and what to throw out, behavior to cancel.