Japanese boy given 'time out' in forest and gets lost. Discipline or abuse?

The 7-year-old has been lost in the mountainous area for four days after his parents wanted to teach him self-control after throwing rocks. 

Kyodo News/AP
Rescuers search for a 7-year-old boy who is missing in a Japanese forest in Nanae, on Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan's four main islands.

The trouble a 7-year-old Japanese boy has found himself in isn’t the punishment his parents intended.

Yamato Tanooka has been missing in a mountainous area of the country’s main northern island of Hokkaido ever since his parents abandoned him in the forest by the road for a few minutes Saturday to discipline him for throwing rocks. As more than 150 rescuers search for the boy, opinions are divided over if how he was punished was a time-out gone wrong or a form of abuse.

Tanooka was left behind on the family’s way back from a day trip to Nanae. Tanooka’s father, Takayuki, said his son was misbehaving, throwing rocks at cars on a nearby road, a police spokesman told The Japan Times. To punish him, his parents left him in the forest, driving 550 yards away, and returning minutes later, according to Agence France-Presse (AFP). By that point, Tanooka was already gone.

In the four days since, firefighters and police have desperately searched for the 7-year-old. Tanooka was left without food or water, wearing just navy shorts, a black pullover and red sneakers, reported The Washington Post.  The mountainous area is also home to wild bears, reported CNN. Search efforts have intensified after rescuers found fresh bear droppings, reported the Post.

Satoshi Saito, a firefighter, voiced frustration about having “too little information about how the boy would have acted after being left alone,” he told the AFP.

Experts on disciplining children have said not knowing how a child will react to a time-out is actually one of the problems with it.

“Even when presented in a patient and loving manner, time-outs teach them that when they make a mistake, or when they are having a hard time, they will be forced to be by themselves – a lesson that is often experienced, particularly by young children, as rejection,” Dr. Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson, co-authors of “No-Drama Discipline: The Whole-Brain Way to Calm the Chaos and Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind,” wrote for Time Magazine in 2014.

Yet, time-outs could be effective if carried out right, they added.

“Time-outs were initially designed to help children calm down so they can reflect on and change their behavior as part of a larger parenting strategy,” they wrote in a follow-up for the Huffington Post. “[However], we’ve found that time-outs are often used in a reactive and punitive manner that leaves children feeling more reactive and dysregulated.”

Time-outs remain one of the most popular forms of discipline in the United States.  According to a presentation by Dr. Desmond Runyon, executive director of the University of Colorado’s Kempe Center, which specializes in child protection, 79 percent of American parents place their children in time-outs, the second highest form of discipline in the country behind taking away privileges. 

Whether it’s time-outs, lost privileges or a spanking, American children tend to fear punishment more than Japanese children, other research has found.

According to George Bear, a professor at the University of Delaware’s School of Education, the difference is a result of what the Japanese hope to instill in their children.

“Japanese mothers, in particular, emphasize that you should not tease others or hit others, because it hurts them and not because you will get spanked or get a time-out,” Professor Bear told the university in an interview. “So, I think what motivated the Japanese children’s behavior, to a large extent, would be the feelings of guilt and empathy.”

On Twitter, Japanese users were outraged at Tanooka’s parents.

“This is not punishment but abuse!” one post read, according to AFP. “The parents are so stupid that I am speechless,” wrote another. 

At first, Tanooka’s father wasn’t forthright with the police about how his son disappeared. He said he became lost while the family was hiking in search of wild vegetables.

"I was not able to ask for [a search] with a reason of punishment," he told TV Asahi, according to CNN. "I thought it might be taken as a domestic violence."

Police said they are considering filing charges of neglect against the parents, according to AFP. 

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