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'Monster parents' plague Japan's schools

Breakfast for parents at day-care centres, laundry and nail-clipping done at school, a pick-up service by teachers -- these are some of the requests from Japan's so-called "monster parents".

world Updated: Mar 23, 2010 10:27 IST

Breakfast for parents at day-care centres, laundry and nail-clipping done at school, a pick-up service by teachers -- these are some of the requests from Japan's so-called "monster parents".

The increasingly outrageous demands have driven teachers' stress levels to record heights and led the Tokyo city government to publish a handbook on tips to cope with them.

More than 60,000 teachers and other workers at Tokyo's public schools will get a copy by the end of March in a 10-million-yen (110,000-dollar) project.

"There are so many," a Tokyo teacher said as she recalled complaints her elementary school has received.

"A mother rings us at 7:30 am and keeps nagging for two hours... One morning she was saying 'Why did you make my child speak before other children? My child doesn't like to make a speech...'," said the teacher.

"They are looking at their children alone and demand teachers attach special importance to them," she said, asking for anonymity.

Education critic Naoki Ogi, who has conducted a survey on "monster parents" -- as they have been dubbed by the media -- said that behind the problem was the introduction in the early 2000s of commercial principles in education.

Many municipalities now let parents choose which school their children attend rather than allocating one depending on the district they live in -- making schools compete to woo students.

In a nation with one of the world's lowest birthrates, the consequence was that "education has become a merchandise," Ogi told AFP.

"Customers are 'god' at department stores with buyers having absolute superiority over sellers -- and (in schools) parents are the buyers."

Even the royal family came under scrutiny this month after the palace announced the crown princess's only child had skipped school after suffering from anxiety due to "raucous" boys.

"Is Princess Masako a monster mother?" a magazine headline asked, amid a controversy over whether it was excessive to disclose a school problem through a palace spokesman.

Ogi collected more than 700 examples of monster parents through educators and parents across the nation.

His survey found that one teacher was asked to visit a pupil's home every morning to pick the child up. Another teacher was urged to check weather forecasts and instruct children if they needed to carry umbrellas the next day.

Schools had faced demands that they wash children's gym outfits, clip their nails -- or redo a yearbook because a particular child was not in many photos.

One mother argued that her child broke a school window because the stone he used should not have been where he found it. She demanded compensation for the wages she missed through taking time off work to visit the school over the issue.

Ogi also said he had talked to an elementary school teacher who was asked by a mother to bring lunch for her child on an excursion day.

The teacher did because she was afraid the child would not be able to join the excursion otherwise -- an example of monstrous parents using their own children as "hostages" to make teachers do what they want, Ogi said.

Government data show the number of teachers absent from school due to mental stress has more than tripled over the past decade, accounting for 63 percent of teachers on sick leave.

And more than 26,000 teachers and other school workers in Tokyo have insured themselves against lawsuits, up from only 1,300 a decade ago.

Some stressed-out teachers have killed themselves.

A veteran caregiver set herself on fire at a nursery in 2002 after receiving persistent complaints for four months from the parents of a boy who had scratches after scrambling for a book with other children.

She left a suicide note on her desk, according to her bereaved family's lawyer, Toru Yamazaki.

"I'm sorry. Please let me be forgiven. I couldn't keep my pride in these four months," the 10-page note read.

The Tokyo handbook says the initial response by a school to a complaint is important to prevent it from escalating, noting that "an appropriate apology" should show sympathy without necessarily accepting the complaint's validity.

An example would be to say: "I'm sorry for causing worries. I'll talk to you again after investigating what happened", rather than "I'm sorry for causing trouble, for our insufficiencies."

Shinichi Sekine, a complaint management advisor who oversaw the production of the handbook, said it would "help teachers act appropriately if they have examples of incidents and their possible solutions in mind beforehand."

Toyama City in central Japan made a case-study brochure for day-care workers listing past issues, ranging from a request for breakfast for parents to a mother's complaint that her short son was placed next to a tall boy in a class photograph.

Educators suggest some "monster parents" lead isolated lives, having nobody in the neighbourhood to consult on child rearing.

The Toyama City booklet says receiving complaints could be "an opportunity" to rescue troubled parents who are seeking an outlet for their built-up stress. "Complaints can be a distress signal," it says.