The case of the seven year old child, Yamato Tanooka, left in a forest by his parents, was widely covered by the international media. The child was hospitalised after spending six nights alone, sheltering in a hut and drinking water from a tap outside.
Yamato was abandoned by his parents as punishment for throwing stones in the car. His father was already unhappy with the boy for getting in to trouble at school. “I tried to show him that I can be scary when I’m seriously angry” he said.
Shocking stuff but not that surprising when you pause to think of the punitive measures meted out to young children every day in our schools and homes. The parenting style used by Yamato’s parents represented an extreme case of what has become normal in western societies.
Phoney celebrity parenting ‘experts’ like Kathryn Mewes (‘Three Day Nanny’) and Jo Frost (‘Supernanny’) have helped popularise the idea that children need to be punished in order for their behaviour to be corrected.
What this really amounts to is punishment of children until they conform to what adults want. This can produce short-term results, with a child expelled from the classroom and a lesson resuming, or a child sent to their bedroom so that an adult can concentrate on what they are doing.
But any immediate result is offset by detrimental long-term consequences. Popular methods, including time outs, the naughty step and withdrawal of treats give the message that the child is not acceptable as they are.
Time outs, for instance, do not work if your aim is to nurture an intimate and respectful relationship with a child. A child’s greatest fear is abandonment, and a time out is experienced by a child as just this. They also learn that adults’ acceptance of them is conditional on certain ways of being, that they are not loved unconditionally. Security and trust are eroded.
The Tanooka family incident was a time out taken to an extreme.
Children act from instinct, so if they are ‘acting out’ they are displaying their emotions in their rawest form. Without the required vocabulary, children have no choice but to express their needs in ways that adults often find unpalatable. But how many adults do you know who are able to calmly and coherently express their needs?
Children who are repeatedly disruptive and challenging at school are from homes that lack stability, where there is chaos, fear and an inability on the part of adults to be present and attuned to the child.
Adults need to be available so that children can express their pain and confusion until they realise the futility of their approach. Only at this point can a child accept and move on.
Add shame to their pain, by punishing the child, ostracising them, putting their name under a sad face on the board, just for being themselves, and by the age of 10 many of these children will have given up hope of ever being accepted by society. The physiological development of the child’s brain will have been impaired that much.
The human need for attachment and acceptance is at the root of the problems inherent in the punishment model of parenting. The ‘Supernanny’ approach either ignores these impulses, or worse, uses them to bully the child.
Happy face, sad face
It is not just the supposedly ‘bad’ children that are affected by the adult-centred approach to behaviour. Even those children whose names feature under the teacher’s ‘happy face’ are effectively being bribed. They are learning that their acceptance is conditional on their placid behaviour. By rewarding children for doing their work, educators are systematically eroding the child’s inherent curiosity and natural enthusiasm for learning. For more on this, see the work of Alfie Kohn http://www.alfiekohn.org/.
A good counsellor understands what so-called ‘bad’ behaviour really is: an opportunity to engage with the child, to show them acceptance, help them comprehend the world and move beyond their pain. Even the most objectionable behaviour does not need to be met with an angry reaction. A more measured response is required, one that harnesses the child’s natural instinct to please the adult.
The punishment model of bringing up children is booming because of a significant loss of adult power in western societies. Parents are more stressed and over-worked and therefore less emotionally available for their children. Traditional family units are breaking down. Class sizes are too big and teachers are over-stretched in a system of league tables and mind numbing SATs.
Despite the loss of adult attention, children still need to attach. Our culture should support children’s attachment to appropriate nurturing figures, but it doesn’t. In youth culture, adults have been reduced to figures of mockery and irrelevance and children are increasingly turning to other children to meet their attachment needs. But peer relationships require a certain amount of cool detachment, and so fail to meet the child’s needs. Extreme cases of this are child-on-child violence, such as that seen recently in Notting Hill. The need for attachment to the peer group is so strong that vulnerability is not an option.
Only adults can provide the safe space for a child’s healthy emotional development. But the technology so many adults provide for their children presents a way for children to reinforce their mutual but shallow peer attachments. For more on the dangers of peer orientation see Gordon Neufeld’s work https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GKRp3dsPelE.
As Neufeld says, “don’t court the competition” – time to cancel that playdate. There are plenty of other steps to take that will allow your relationship with your child to blossom, they all require going against the tide.
Carving out regular time to be fully attuned to your child requires a change of routine and possible financial sacrifice. It can mean giving up our own material comforts and mean we have to be present with ourselves too, not always easy.
My personal favourite is to leave my phone at home and take my daughter on a walk somewhere in London. She initially resists and doesn’t see much point in it, but it doesn’t take long before she’s in the flow of the walk, exploring, chatting and renewing her attachment to me. We go for lunch, draw, and when we get home, I see signs of a stronger attachment and contentment: she’s more tactile, more relaxed and her drawings are along the lines of flowers and hearts with ‘daddy’ and ‘mummy’ written around them. She is acting on a natural desire to attach and has found an adult who is receptive.
Attachment parenting is the alternative to the punishment and bribery dished out to Yamato Tanooka and countless other children every day. Your child will melt into you.
By Tom Charles