I have been thinking a lot about the Japanese boy who went missing this week. In case you missed it, a wide-scale search is currently underway to find 7-year-old Yamato Tanooka in northern Japan who disappeared after his parents left him on the roadside as punishment for misbehaving.
They drove down the road, about 500 metres and returned after 5 minutes, only to find he had vanished. Gone. In a bear-infested, mountainous and chilly area. He had only been wearing a t-shirt.
When I read that story, a mixture of guilt, shame and anxiety washed over me. Last weekend, I had driven off and left my son on the roadside as punishment. He refused to get in the car, then threw a massive tantrum. So we left him, where he was happily pulling up grass in a vacant lot. We got in the car, announced our departure loudly and started driving off.
I had heard about this tactic several years ago, when it was introduced to me by Joshua Gans, the author of “Parentomics” in a Freakonomics podcast. Here’s the transcript:
GANS: We would go to the park and our child, this is our then-eldest child was probably around four, would invariably not want to leave. So, we would have this big song and dance about, we have to go now, you can’t keep on playing, she’d run off, you know it would be costly, let me put it that way.
So what we did one day we were sitting there and she was doing it yet. Again and we said, you know, we keep threatening that we’ll just leave, why don’t we get in the car and just leave? And so we said, you know, you come or we’re going to go and we’re going to get in the car and drive off, and that is actually what we did in front of a full park, other parents as well, we had a screaming child running after us going, you know, no, don’t leave me, exactly to get that message across.
Now, to be short, you know, while that might not have been obvious to the other parents standing there, I tell you, it was a tough thing for us to do, there was another family at the park that was going to at least watch out that she didn’t do something silly as a result of this like run on to the road or something like that. So, we weren’t totally crazy, but then again, we did drive off leaving our child thinking she’d been left behind.
DUBNER: And what happened the next time that she wanted to stay at the park longer?
GANS: Never ever happened again. Never, ever had another problem, perfectly well behaved.
DUBNER: Sadism works.
To me, that sounded like a genius move. Last weekend we made it 10 metres before I cracked. My eyes were glued on his fuzzy silhouette the entire time, waiting for a reaction. As the car crawled to a stop, I hopped out and ran across the field to where my son was happily sinking his fingers into the warm dirt. Not only did the tactic NOT work, he hadn’t even registered that we were gone.
These mothers get honest on the times they have felt like terrible parents. Post continues after video…
The situation could’ve ended ended with a terrible outcome. In the three minutes he was left alone, he could’ve been mauled by a wild animal, bitten by a snake, fallen into a hole, a million and one scenarios. But nothing happened. So we congratulated ourselves for “having a go” for taking the disciplinary tactic that didn’t come naturally to us. Even Joshua Gans says to discipline, sometimes you have to break some social customs:
“You now, at some point you’ve got to raise the price enough. You’ve got to be credible. I mean, you know that’s the dispassionate economist says you do what it takes. I guess I’ve become some hard-lined hawk in that regard. You know, so occasionally we break from social mores, but we only had to do it once.”
When terrible things happen, it’s easy to point the finger and label actions as “bad parenting.” That has happened this week with the Japanese boy, and the boy who fell into the gorilla enclosure at a Cincinnati zoo. What were their parents THINKING?! How could they take their eyes off their kid?? How IRRESPONSIBLE.
When good things happen (and that is to say, when nothing happens) you never hear about it. My child abandonment scenario wasn’t going to make global headlines. When bad things happen, every sordid detail of your parenting past gets revealed. Criminal histories, treatment of other family members, that time you forgot to feed him lunch.
Yamato’s parents are now living in this restless, nail-biting, disquieting hell. I imagine they would do anything to take those five minutes back. Takayuki Tanooka said so himself:
“We have done an unforgivable thing to our child, and we have caused a lot of trouble for everyone,” he said. “I just hope he is safe.”
Yes they made a serious mistake by leaving him alone, and then lying about it. I suppose I also made a serious mistake up by leaving my son alone for three minutes. But unlike me, Yamato’s parents are now paying the ultimate price.