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The JET Programme With Kids
Parents bringing their children on the JET Program
Disclaimer: There really are so many variables on this issue that it's hard to make any definitive pronouncements. The information below with thanks to the JET Programme forum is predominantly about issues that may affect your child's reaction and that you may want to think about, but at the end of the day it's going to largely be about your situation.
1. Placement variables
Depending where you're placed and your individual contracting organisation the situation can vary considerably, for example:
i. School vacations - Some contracting organisations give you the school holidays off (without taking formal leave), while others require you to be at school, and some are in-between (e.g. you can leave early or take the occasional day off informally). Why this is an important consideration is that you need to think carefully about what your child will do when you're at work and they're not at school. It is true that most Japanese children spend a lot of time during the "holidays" at school, but there will be days when there's no club or anything else on at school, and, if an older child, they will be too old for day care. Is your child responsible enough to be left alone for a day (or half day) at home?
ii. Attitude to foreigners - Some areas in Japan are more positive and welcoming of foreigners than others, but this isn't true everywhere. This is something you'll need to assess on a case-by-case basis. With public Elementary and Junior High Schools you're required to attend the school in your area rather than having a choice (like you do at pre-school and Senior High School levels). If your local elementary school and junior high school aren't very accepting of foreigners (something you'll need to gauge with a visit to the schools) then you may have options like international schools. Placements in Tokyo are extremely rare so one can rule out international schools there. You can cross your fingers and hope to get placed in another city such as Osaka/ Kobe/ Nagoya/ Kyoto/ Hiroshima/ Fukuoka but those places are tough to get placements and the costs for the schools are quite pricey. Home schooling is also an option as foreign children are under no obligation to attend Japanese compulsory schooling (some parents opt for intensive home tuition with Japanese tutors for a period before entering their child into a Japanese school). One suggestion is to get your child into some intensive Japanese language classes before you leave. If they can get even to a moderate level that will certainly help him deal with it.
iii. Child care leave - If your child is sick what is your contracting organisation's policy on this? Some require you to take regular leave, others will allow you to use sick leave, and some have child care leave (sometimes it's called "family leave"), but this is something you need to look into. Kids get sick and it's stressful enough for both of you without suddenly finding out that you don't have leave or something similar. In some areas the local women and childrens' clinic has a child care facility for sick children, and you'll need to look into whether there's a similar option in your area.
iv. Your school's attitude - A positive attitude from your school and co-workers (some of whom will be mothers themselves) can make a tremendous difference in terms of how easy or hard things can be. A sympathetic school and supervisor can make contracting organisation problems disappear (for example they may informally give you extra leave even if its contrary to your contracting organisation's policy), they can fill you in on the best places to get children's supplies, organise introductions to children's Japanese tutors, liaise with your child's school, etc. On the flip side an unsympathetic or even antagonistic school can make your life hellishly difficult and add a lot of stress and pressure. we would recommend sounding out your school and supervisor carefully before making any final decision.
2. Child variables
Your child's personality, skills and attitudes can make a huge difference, for example:
i. Linguistic ability - Does your child pick up languages easily? How strong is your child's Japanese? Your child will need to relatively quickly acquire a level of Japanese sufficient to understand lessons, interact with their classmates, and do routine tasks like getting a bus, buying lunch, etc. Obviously studying Japanese before they come will make life considerably easier, and even a little Japanese can go a long way.
ii. Attitude to Japan - Even adults go through some teething problems when we're adjusting to living in Japan, from "culture shock" and homesickness to frustration at being unable to communicate. If you start off optimistic and positive it can make a huge difference in how well we adjust. We have the advantage that we've chosen to live here, it's something we WANT to do, however children can feel that this is something that they've been pressured into or have had little choice in. You mentioned that you want your child to decide, but in my opinion there's still an element of pressure, because if your child refuses they'll have to be away from you for at least a year, and that exerts considerable pressure for them to come and join you even if they aren't crazy about Japan. We'd recommend having a preliminary chat now, before you go and making it clear that your child has veto rights on the entire thing, if they say so you won't go.
iii. Standing out - Your child will stand out. Initially they might feel like a rock star, but over time this get wearing, always being "on display" and representative of an entire culture (their teachers and classmates will make assumptions about everyone from their country based on their behaviour). This can be very positive, but it can also impair their ability to "fit in" and be "normal". Your child's personality can have a tremendous impact on how they take to this attention, and how they deal with it.
3. Planned length of stay - Staying only one year can be traumatic for a child, they're just beginning to "fit in", feel confident in their Japanese ability and make friends and suddenly you want them to go home and start all over again. Staying for 4 or 5 years (only an option with some contracting organisations) puts your child in a position where they're competing with native speakers in the very difficult and stressful Senior High School entrance examinations. Think carefully about how long you plan to stay and what your long-term plans are, because while it may be upsetting to be apart for a year it might be in your child's best interests to stay home and keep up with their regular schooling rather than going overseas for a year then going home and finding that not only have they not mastered sufficient Japanese to make a long-term difference, but they're also behind in their native language curriculum.
These are just a few things to start thinking about as there are a lot of hard decisions to make as a parent, and as you can see some of them are dependant on your individual placement situation. Probably the best advice, for what it's worth, is to contemplate the worst case scenario (which might be being apart for a year, or might be your child coming over and then being so unhappy you want to break contract and go home together) and then consider your individual situation (financial, personal, etc) and come up with a worst-case plan. That way if things go bad at least you'll have planned and budgeted for it and you won't be unprepared. We hope things work out well for you, but it is always wise to at least some time thinking about the worst case scenario and planning for it.