Abuse or Discipline?

Much attention has been given to the story of the Japanese boy abandoned in bear-infested woods by his parents as punishment for misbehavior.  Along with the celebration of his discovery alive and relatively well, has come intense debate about the style of parenting precipitating this event.  Having first reported that the boy became separated from the family while they were all out vegetable gathering, the father confessed that he had made his son, who had been throwing stones at cars and people, get out of the car and then had driven off as a disciplinary measure.  When he returned a short time later the boy was nowhere to be seen.

In Japan, the police are considering whether the parents should be charged with negligence, while social critics and educators are speaking out against the parents’ conduct.  One prominent education expert is quoted as saying the parents must be harshly condemned and assumed they would be arrested.  Others, apparently, sympathized with the parents, pointing to the frustrations of child-rearing and the need, at times, for tough love methods.

On social media, someone asked if we should call all forms of strict disciplining abuse, and wondered if as parents one would never keep a distance from your child or abandon them?  The point was made that this case was a chance to think about how we engage with children.  It seems that this event has made parents do just that.

Parents here, as well as in Japan, can undoubtedly identify with this story, with the frustration of the parents and also the degree of criticism they have elicited.  Any parent who has experienced a child acting up in a supermarket or other public place, knows how readily observers make critical comments both about the child’s behavior and the parent’s handling of the situation.  Beyond that, however, the question of the role of discipline and the kind of discipline that is appropriate, is an ongoing question in the minds of parents.

Discipline most often gets translated as punishment and is often raised when children behave in unacceptable ways, or their behavior runs counter to parents’ requests.  Discipline then becomes a search for a method that will control behavior we don’t like or feel is inappropriate.  Parents often talk about this in terms of learning: “He has to learn to do as he is told.”  The question then is, if a child has to learn something, what is the best way to teach it?

The feeling persists in many of us that only punishment will drive a lesson home.  There are conflicting opinions about whether punishment is an effective teacher.  But it only comes up as a method of teaching for certain kinds of behavior – behavior that is considered “bad.  Few would think of punishment as a solution for a child having trouble learning spelling or arithmetic.  We distinguish between academic learning and social learning, yet both involve teaching.

The question really is, what is an effective way of teaching appropriate social behavior?  We have to start by asking why a child isn’t learning.  Is he being asked to do something he is not yet capable of doing, or is he being asked to do something he doesn’t want to do?  Is he defiant because he feels the expectations are unfair?  This means trying to understand why a child is misbehaving and this influences what we might do about it.

The seven-year-old Japanese boy obviously had great intelligence and a strong will to walk three miles through a forest, find shelter and a means to survive alone for six days.  The report was that when found he seemed relieved rather than scared.  This suggests that he was an independent child who would not readily submit to attempts at harsh parental control.  But why was he misbehaving?  Possibly parental expectations on this outing were unrealistic for this active boy, who perhaps was throwing stones as an attempt at interacting with others in some way, having nothing else of interest to do in the car.  

The point is not to condone or explain away his behavior, rather to understand and consider other more successful ways to address it.  It is easy to identify with the parent’s frustration.  Which is why often it is parents who need a time-out.