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, has come intense debate about the style of parenting precipitating this event. 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.

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. 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 in Japan, 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 him?

The point was made that this case was a chance to think about how we engage with children and parents are doing just that.

Parents here 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 knows how readily observers make critical comments both about the child and the parent. But the question about 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 raised when children behave in unacceptable ways, or “don’t listen.” Discipline then becomes a search for a method that will control behavior we don’t like or feel is inappropriate. Parents often say, “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 that only punishment will drive a lesson home. But it only comes up as a method of teaching for certain kinds of behavior. 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 the child’s behavior and this influences what we might do about it.

The 7-year-old Japanese boy obviously had great intelligence and a strong will to walk 3 miles through a forest, find shelter, and a means to survive alone for six days. Apparently 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.

— Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. And, she blogs at goodenoughmothering.com.