I was asked recently what I thought about restorative justice. A lot one might say browsing through this blog and indeed, I could probably write an evidence based report on studies that have been done, but for a minute, I’m going to afford myself the luxury of reflecting on what it means and has meant to me, as a parent of four children, who I have pretty much brought up myself.
Restorative justice is a new buzz word in education. It encourages a process of repair but as a parent where can you start because this is surely the end result of a long long process that needs to start years in advance and what’s more I believe it starts with the parent.
For years in this country we have been taught to apply the carrot and stick. A carrot eliciting praise and a stick focussing on consequences for behaviour. Based in behaviourist principles, a lot of the practice of this methodology appears to have deviated significantly from its roots. Everyone knows that if you offer someone an incentive, they will often jumps through hoops to get the said incentive and parenting is no stranger to this. Consider for a minute, the star charts and other such models that have run through generations now. The promises that encourages a child to do good to get good. But is it that simple? And where does it end up?
For sure, when my children were little they were rewarded for good deeds. We had a system of marbles. Collect so many marbles and there would be a prize. That prize might not have been a tangible object, as was the fad at the time, it might have been something else. It didn’t always cost money but it did focus on the do to get model of child development. If rooms were tidied marbles would be added to the jar. If someone did something for someone else, marbles would be added to the jar. “If” equalled marbles but there was a huge problem with this and that was that the “IF” was often a prescription handed down from adult to child to fulfil complicit in power relations. The child did the “if” to get the marbles and the idea was that behaviour was shaped accordingly! WRONG!
Children are clever creatures who know when they’re onto a good thing! They want marbles and they will do anything to get them but does that actually teach them to do for themselves. Of course it doesn’t! And why is that wrong? I hear you say. After all through life we work to be paid, we’re kind to people to get them to like us etc etc. However, none of those associations necessarily bring about inner happiness and that’s where we go wrong. If you teach a child to behave in a set way because they improve an internal locus within them, then you teach them to reward themselves. That feel good feeling that comes about from harnessing something for ourselves. Translated at school, if a child learns something because they want to learn it, and enjoy the feelings that come from their own achievements, then I believe they smooch with their own neurology to trigger further feel good factors and so a concentric circle of good comes about. It doesn’t happen over night but it’s a slow gradual process that develops over time.
Asking a child how they feel and encouraging them to express those emotions using various medium brings them into touch with a side which I believe for far too long has been bypassed. So a child is kind, maybe consoles their friend, strokes the dog, runs upstairs to fetch something and when they come down beaming because they know they’ve done good, rather (or maybe as well as) putting a marble in a jar, encourage them to really experience the positive emotions that are besetting them at the moment in time. And so it goes on. Help them to own their own lives!
Sounds corny? Well maybe but there is a greater truth in there which we have mentioned before because as they approach adulthood and leave school and all the strings of reward slowly diminish each time they do something, they are then armed with an inner tool kit which will furnish them with their own rewards for ever more.
Furthermore, encourage children to be empathetic, compassionate and to have an understanding of how others are feeling. When a sibling does something good, foster an approach that celebrates their success by considering the positive feelings that the sibling is feeling and echo those through the family. When a friend is down and your child says “Alice was sad today” dig a little deeper and see if they can think why she might have been sad. Not to think how they would feel if they were in that position but how she is feeling, why she is feeling like that and what she is seeing from her perceptive.
Likewise do the same when negative behaviours arise. Rather than jumping on the blame and judgement band wagon that doles out consequences likes there’s no tomorrow, without condoning bad behaviour, ask “why do you think Jack did that”. “What do you think made him do that” “Where did that anger come from?” Moreover, ask “What do you think Jack needs to do now” all the time keeping the focus on “Jack” so that your child starts to build up a cognitive repertoire that enables him/her to see actions from another angle.
And then try and encourage a third party perspective. “What actually happened” “How did that occur” from the altitude perspective. This is particularly helpful when processing through a situation where maybe your child isn’t blameless in the equation despite the bad response they have received from another. “What do you think “Teddy” would say if he’d been looking on” because Teddy just might have something to say about both parties.
The same happens later on when a child comes and asks for advice. Don’t just reel off a list of options but get them to see if from another perspective. Suggest they consider what they would say if their friend was asking them the same question. All along helping your child engage with all the different perspectives that are available – not just their own. And more importantly paving a pathway that respects the thoughts, feelings and opinions of others whilst retaining a firm footing on their own thoughts, feelings and opinions at the same time.
It isn’t easy. But how does this relate to restorative justice. Schools now, all over the country, are being encouraged to consider implementing systems that use restorative justice to improve outcomes, less bullying and less exclusions but the fact is, a restorative justice policy in school, will just be that a policy if we don’t change our approach to children’s discipline much much earlier on.
Children need adults to help them foster their future for sure. They need positive role models to follow and they need to learn the veracity of truth and responsibility over blame and judgement. But firstly, and foremost, they need to be able to appreciate how the other person is feeling – what they are thinking – why they might be behaving in a certain way. Having an open ended approach to this, encourages children to listen and to understand.
Importantly though, children need to have their voice heard. They need to forge behaviours that help them learn to express their feelings openly and appropriately but these all need to be on the bedrock discussed above. In the early teenage years, when my children came home with disputes and quarrels or bickered between themselves as siblings do, we had the “point penguin”. We would sit around the table and the person who was holding a stuffed toy penguin would put forward their point whilst the others listened and it always surprised me how much could simply be accomplished by listening. The emphasis was not on punishment – in fact I can’t remember the last time I punished my children – but it was on true listening and then open whole hearted apologies where they were necessary with a firm plan of action to move onwards from that point. That involved understanding that the party that was hurt, might need a little time too. A simply sorry was the first part and the action plan (for want of a better word) encouraged ongoing “repair”. But critically that happened with children who were already able to access theirs and their siblings emotions to understand what had gone on from an altitude perspective.
We therefore didn’t trade in consequences but focussed on outcomes. More importantly, I think this shows, how implementing a system of restorative justice in school cannot happen in isolation. There needs to be programmes of cognitive development that are based in touching base with feelings and accessing third party perspectives.
More, and possibly much more, importantly though it starts with the adults. If adults are locked in the old carrot and stick mentality or subscribe to blame and judgement, then restorative justice just will not work. Children mimic adults – the celebrity culture demonstrates that clearly. Adults have to pave the way and have to subscribe to lowering the power relation threshold sufficiently to enable open and healthy discussion in a safe and secure environment. It starts with a belief that there is always hope. The buy in that change can happen but also not a buy in to change that is forced on another but more so nurtured. Change doesn’t happen overnight and no adult in the world can force a child to change for the child has to do that changing themselves. The power in that comes when they choose to change – when they look in the mirror and challenge themselves not because they’ve been told they need to but because they want to because they truly understand how they are impacting on another and want to be a better person. And that only comes from being able to see every side of the equation.
So, if you want to change your child’s outcome help them to want to change themselves but first of all challenge your own thoughts and feelings to see if you’re ready for the ride. It isn’t simple but it is worth it and it all starts with believing in the capacity of humankind.