My son’s Canadian friend Kyle has come to visit us. Just turned 13, Kyle’s never been to Australia, and he made the trip alone from Japan, where his mother’s family lives. He flew Fukuoka to Tokyo, then Tokyo to Sydney, where Qantas staff took him through Customs and the domestic transfer to fly to Brisbane. Twenty-six hours after he left home, after checking my photo-ID, they handed him over to us. The first thing he did when he saw a big Moreton Bay fig was climb it.
Never having flown as an unaccompanied minor, I talked to the flight attendants last time I travelled about what’s involved. There’s a system of handovers, with individual staff members signing on as they take a child, and off when they hand on to the next person. They spoke fondly of this part of the job. ‘For the holidays, there’s often a big group,’ one attendant said. ‘They have a ball. But even when there’s just one, on their own, or it’s the first time, we make sure it’s fun.’ Another attendant had flown unaccompanied himself as a child. ‘I felt like the king of the world,’ he said.
Meantime I read in the Daily Mail that a mother in Georgia in the US convinced local police to come and ‘arrest’ her 10-year-old son in May this year. They handcuffed the boy and took him out and locked him in the back of a police car alone, to teach him a lesson. His mother did this because he’d been misbehaving at school, she said; he was rude, talking back, not listening and not doing his work. The police agreed for reasons I don’t understand. There was one picture of the boy in tears while being handcuffed by a police officer and another of him looking out desperately from the barred back window of the car.
I know I’m soft as a parent, a big fan of Aletha Solter’s discipline without rewards or punishment, and not even much good at that. Solter favours natural consequences – if you leave your togs on the floor, they’re wet when you go to put them on tomorrow and so forth. I’m fine with wet togs but if my son forgets to take his lunch to school, I know from experience I'll drive lunch over before I let him starve for a day. I am weak. But I’m also not convinced that frightening children, and using police officers for the purpose, will have the outcome you’re wanting. Fear may make a child comply for now, but does it ever help anyone grow towards goodness? When he’s as big as a police officer, will fear be enough to make him a good boy?
I don’t know the boy and his mother and wouldn’t presume to judge their situation, but – and at the risk of sounding like a Qantas song – it struck me that grownups who want to frighten children into compliance are the opposite of the flight attendants dedicated to seeing them safely and happily home.