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There is a saying that competition begets vitality. But to survive this competition, it is essential to have a feeling of self-respect, belief in oneself. Such self-respect gives people, especially children, the power to face challenges without fear of failure. Yet it is often pointed out that neither parents nor teachers in Japan try hard enough to cultivate this kind of inner strength in children.

The biggest problem behind the recent spate of juvenile crimes and other incidents involving minors in Japan is said to be a lack of self-respect among children. The youth who killed and injured a number of other children in a series of attacks in Kobe, touching off the spate of incidents involving juveniles in recent years, reportedly had been tormented by dark feelings: “I wish I had never been born”; “My life is valueless.” He committed his violent crimes as if to extinguish this feeling of powerlessness.

Similarly, the youth who hijacked a Nishitetsu expressway bus had reportedly been bullied. He took direct action in an attempt to restore his fading sense of self.

On the Internet, home pages resound with the voices of young people who have experienced the same feelings of powerlessness: “It’s not that I dislike my friends, but I feel like saying, ‘Please, everyone, just forget that I ever existed.’ “

The problem is how to help these troubled children. The revised Juvenile Law has lowered the age at which people can be subject to criminal punishment, but there has been no change in the reality of children experiencing the loss or failure of emotional support.

Relationships among children themselves are changing, too. Assistant Professor Masayuki Kobayashi of Tokyo Gakugei University, who provides Internet counseling for truant children, comments, “Children cannot stop worrying about what their friends think of them. And they now have friends for specific purposes, such as friends for games and so on. There are no longer relationships in which children see both the good and bad sides of others.”

The important thing is for children to have experiences in which they can persuade others to accept them fully, the good and the bad included. Such relationships lead to the feelings of self-respect by which children come to terms with themselves.

By having contact with and accepting the viewpoints of others, children develop the strength to control their impulses and a consciousness of social norms. There is value in experiencing trial and error in life and sharing one’s worries with others. Volunteer activities that decide what is right beforehand and moral education that forces external standards on young people will not bear much fruit.

Schools should offer young people the chance to experience different aspects of life and to come into contact with a variety of adults. It is important also for teachers to shed their roles as mere classroom instructors and interact with children as human beings. The first step in this direction would be to realize the goal of small classes, so that children can be identified as individuals.

Equally important is to take another look at relations between parents and children. Are the relations in the family limited to simple functions, with the mother preparing the meals, the father earning a salary and the child going to school? Everyone has both a good side and a bad side. Incidents involving “good children” are said to be on the rise. But it is the parent-child relationship, in which only the good side can be shown, that we must reconsider.

Support for parents is also essential. The case in Bunkyo Ward, Tokyo, in which a mother murdered her daughter’s kindergarten classmate, revealed the isolation of mothers raising children behind closed doors. These women have no margin at all. Many cases of child abuse are the result of this situation, in which families have lost the support of neighbors and remain cut off from other sources of emotional support.

The number of suicides in Japan exceeds 30,000 a year. Among these, people in their 40s or over — in other words, the parent generation — account for three-quarters of the total. In this context, the words of one psychiatrist strike a chord: “People tend to commit suicide when their feelings of worthlessness reach a peak.”

Everyone has a unique value. It is important for both adults and children to grasp this fact. If someone sees that even one other individual recognizes his or her value, he or she will gain that much self-confidence — and then another life can begin anew.

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