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Yoko Sagae

by Judit Kawaguchi

Yoko Sagae, 57, is the vice principal of the Toyomi Public Kindergarten in Tokyo’s Chuo Ward. Ms. Sagae has taken care of more than 1,700 children — and their parents — during her 31 years in early childhood education, and she is not about to stop. Loved by generations in the neighborhood where she works, Sagae credits children and her furniture-maker husband for keeping her young at heart and always happy.

Children always have a reason for crying. Usually it is the adults’ behavior that makes children upset and hurt, so they burst into tears. We must listen more and get mad less.

Attention seekers need love, and hugs usually do the trick. When we see children for the first time, we can immediately recognize those who lack love at home. They are always doing something outrageous just so people notice them. I just hold them and they relax. Their numbers are increasing greatly.

Kindergarten is a place for parents. Although we only accept children from age 3, we offer baby massage classes just to get young moms and dads into a classroom setting, where they can learn from each other and us. Our role is to get them ready to be parents, to teach them proper nutrition, child development and Japanese culture.

Taste buds bloom early on. The sense of taste is highly developed even in babies, and by age 3 the five different tastes of sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami, or savory, are established and food preferences are pretty much set. Therefore the period to age 3 is crucial and moms should really stay at home and cook nutritious meals for their families.

Parents must be prepared for the worst. Parents-to-be have it all wrong: their image of an infant is based on lovely photos of clean, smiling, gorgeous babies, and yet what they have in their arms is a screaming little monster that doesn’t drink its milk, is constantly stinking from urine and feces and almost never sleeps. I guess this contrast puts a dark shadow under a young mom’s eyes.

Just graduating from university is, of itself, not enough of a qualification to teach anything. I worked in an advertising agency for a few years before pursuing my dream to be a kindergarten teacher. Although I didn’t like selling ideas and products, at least I learnt that there were many ways of looking at issues. I also gained a lot of experience in the real world, which should be a prerequisite for all teachers.

One must be patient with parents. To teach something to adults, the best way is to show how interesting it is. Same as with toddlers!

Parenting takes experience. In my time, our parents had five or six siblings each, so it was natural to have 25 cousins running around, from teenagers to newborns. By the time we grew up, we were used to taking care of children of all ages. Our neighbors were the same, and if I heard a baby cry in a house I would just go in and hold the baby in my arms.

What is considered bullying is often not.s In the adult world, if we are eating dinner and having a good conversation, we don’t want a third person to suddenly butt in. Yet we expect children to be unselfish, perfect beings and always allow another child to get into their game. Seems unreasonable, doesn’t it?

Two silent types make a very talkative couple. I was 37 and had no desire to get married. My friends set us up. He was known as a quiet man, but since we met we can’t stop talking.

Father must be king. If he is, mom can be queen. In my house, dad had an extra bowl of food that he always shared with us kids. We loved the daily ceremony of receiving a treat from him. I felt safe living with a strong father whom my mom respected so much. We children naturally followed her and looked up to dad. I think this is the structure today’s kids need and don’t have.

Parents must stick with their own rules. When parents complain that their children don’t listen to them, we can be sure it is the adults’ fault. Parents change their policy quickly, depending on their own schedule, and kids cannot catch up.

Staying in can be as eye-opening as going out. The world is big, even at home. For example, growing flowers or planting beans, enjoying a tea ceremony, cooking and celebrating festivals are all great activities that cost very little and are so easy to do. Parents assume that going on ski trips and visiting theme parks is the most fun for their children, but sharing small pleasant experiences together is just as important.

Parents must be told that raising kids is fun. Because it really is.

Children have no sense of the future. They only understand the here and now, and they rush with everything as if this was the last chance to do it.