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What Did the Boy in the Wood (or His Parents) Learn

13/06/2016 11:23 | Updated 13 June 2016

The sensational story of the 7 year old Japanese boy Yamato Tanooka who was left in the woods by his parents as a form of discipline and then got lost has of course attracted all sorts of comment, with much criticism of the parents. But there has been little discussion about what the parents were trying to do and whether it was effective.

In case you've missed it (because you've been lost in the woods yourself?) Yamato had been throwing stones at cars and people and his parents decided he needed to be taught a lesson. Their buttons had been pushed. They'd had enough and decided to take action. Most of us would applaud them at this point -we don't want to have kids pelting us with pebbles while their parents smile benignly at them, saying 'boys will be boys'. (You know you've seen similar).
They put the boy out of the car and drove off intending to return in a few minutes. The boy, apparently quite distressed, ran after the car but got disorientated and took a wrong turn so when the parents returned to the spot he was gone. He went some distance along a track until he found shelter where he was found, several days later, physically unharmed.

Imagine how those parents felt. The terrible fear for the boy (there were bears in those woods), the fear for themselves (which showed up in them lying to the authorities about how the boy came to be missing), the guilt and shame (so clearly expressed in images of his poor father hanging his head). Who knows how it had happened. Maybe one parent was more angry than the other so there was conflict between them. Maybe they'd given several warnings already and felt really disrespected when the boy continued his behaviour. Maybe they thought it was essential to do something dramatic to reassert their authority and teach the boy a lesson.

Generally when we make mistakes in our discipline the consequences aren't the potential loss of life of our children and they're not played out in the full glare of media attention.

When my middle son was just a little bit older than Yamato he too engaged in some stone throwing activity with his cousin (boys and projectiles!) -in his case off a high-rise balcony, oblivious of the effect on cars below. I'm pretty sure if I'd had some bear-infested woods nearby at the time I'd have thought that was a pretty good option! In our case this was part of a series of incidents which very clearly showed us how little we were in control of this boy and so we were feeling powerless, angry and embarrassed. Our buttons were being pushed too! Luckily my husband and I had recently started the parenting course that was the beginning of The Parent Practice journey, so we had a few emerging skills to hand.

A key message we had learnt was that discipline has got to be about teaching, not just revenge for the wrong-doing. We talk about 'teaching children a lesson' but we have to be careful that the child learns the lesson we intend.

When the Yamato story broke many people rang in to a radio programme to which I was listening with their own stories of discipline in childhood. A surprising number talked about their parents putting them out of cars and driving off, only to return a few moments later. What do our children learn from this? Momentarily we learn that if we are really bad our parents will abandon us. This breaks a fundamental primal bond between parent and child, causing great fear and a belief that we must be truly awful people. Then when the parent returns we learn that they were bluffing. So we learn not to trust their word. Even if we don't abandon our children in the woods we frequently threaten to leave our children in shops when they won't come as quickly as we want. It can make a small child hurry up (older children know we don't mean it) but they do so out of fear and they get the message that our care for them is conditional upon them doing what we say. While they couldn't articulate it they feel manipulated and controlled and that feeling is at the heart of much poor behaviour.

You may be wondering what we did with our own stone-throwing miscreant. Luckily there were other parents (my sister and her husband) involved which I think helped us to stay calm. (It doesn't always have that effect-embarrassment can make us do weird things in our attempts to demonstrate our authority.) We agreed a course of action together. We calmly explained to our sons why it was wrong. Although you'd think they'd know, the impulse of the moment hijacked their thinking brains. We then involved them in making amends. The boys had to admit to the manager of the building what had happened and the parents had to undertake to pay for the damage to the cars. The boys were to earn the money to repay the parents by doing extra jobs, for a very long time. But at no point did we indicate that the boys were no longer worthy of our love or care. Our boys learnt a lesson from this episode about taking responsibility...and also that the family would tell the story at their expense, but with humour, for years to come!
What is the craziest thing your parents did by way of discipline? What about you? Do share with us your experiences of discipline that really teaches what you want your child to learn.

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