Jacob and Angela Boggus, who live in New Mexico, made national headlines recently when neighbors told authorities they were disciplining their 16-year-old son by making him live in a tent outside their home. The Bogguses said their son had been stealing from them, repeatedly, and that all attempts to stop him had failed.
The boy has been living in the tent for a little over two weeks. His parents bring him food and water, and he has access to the home only to use the bathroom. His punishment is to live in the tent for a month, or until he completes five book reports focusing on being a respectable person.
The Bogguses’ critics say the punishment is sadistic. Their supporters applaud their willingness to take a stand against their son’s alleged thievery, and their efforts to shape his character for the better.
Here’s my view: Making a 16-year-old live in a tent outside the house isn’t a reliable way to shape his character. It’s more likely to harden him than to sensitize him, and it doesn’t really get to the roots of what is driving his negative behavior. Smart parenting isn’t about pitching a tent, putting your kid in it and hoping for the best. It’s about earning his respect and then using it to dig deep enough into his soul to understand what’s driving him in the wrong direction.
Smart parenting isn’t about pitching a tent, putting your kid in it and hoping for the best. It’s about earning his respect and then using it to dig deep enough into his soul to understand what’s driving him in the wrong direction.
A son may steal from his parents because he is addicted to drugs and desperate to buy them. In that case, his addiction needs to be understood — whether it’s due to depravity or depression — and treated. Another son may steal from his parents because they have stolen something from him, like his self-esteem, and the unconscious metaphor has the psychological power to turn him into a thief because it has real symbolic meaning.
Whatever the underlying reason for their son’s stealing, my 22 years of practicing psychiatry tell me the Bogguses aren’t just this drama’s victims; they are its co-authors. Offspring of truly great parents don’t become petty criminals. Period. They develop too much respect for themselves and for others.
Think about it: Parents who have decided that a monthlong camping trip beside their family house is the way to encourage their son to be more trustworthy aren’t parents you’d want babysitting your son very long.
I wouldn’t leave my dog with them.
And if the Bogguses’ son becomes a scourge upon the community, it won’t likely be in spite of their best efforts. It will be because this was the best parenting formula they could manage: Put your problems out in the yard and wait.
Great. No wonder their boy has it in for them.
Getting out of that house may be the best thing that has happened to him. Maybe he’ll read this and start to wonder why he isn’t picking up stakes and moving to a buddy’s house, where there might at least be some sensible people a stone’s throw away.
Keith Ablow, MD is a psychiatrist, and was host of the nationally-syndicated "Dr. Keith Ablow Show." He is a former member of the Fox News Medical A Team.