Parenting: Discipline – The Restorative Justice System

Discipline has got to be one of the hardest tasks of parenting. We want to raise moral children who can feel empathy for others. When our children behave in a way that goes against that, it is hard to manage our own emotions as we try to deal with what they’ve done.

I say “we” but perhaps I really mean “I”. Of all the subjects on my parenting report card, I think that discipline is the one that scares me the most. And it has suddenly occurred to me where I’ve been going wrong. I’ve been trying so hard to raise children that never do wrong and feeling like I’m failing whenever they do – which is often.

Children are children. They are growing and they are learning and from time to time, they make bad choices. It happens. It’s all part of growing up. What matters is not whether they are able to behave perfectly all the time, but whether they are able to see when they have done wrong, feel remorse for their actions, and have the desire to make things right again.

Restorative Justice

Image Credit: Yellow Medicine County Minesota

Recently, one of the teachers talked to me about a system they use in school called Restorative Justice…

What is Restorative Justice?

From Restorativejustice.org:

Restorative justice is a theory of justice that emphasizes repairing the harm caused or revealed by criminal behaviour. It is best accomplished through cooperative processes that include all stakeholders.

Practices and programs reflecting restorative purposes will respond to crime by:

  1. Identifying and taking steps to repair harm
  2. Involving all  stakeholders
  3. Transforming the traditional relationship between communities and their governments in responding to crime

Okay, I realise that sounds pretty heavy so how can translate it and apply it for children? Here’s how the school has done it…

Restorative Justice for Children

When things go wrong, the offenders are taken through this series of questions:

  1. What happened?
  2. What were you thinking at the time?
  3. Who has been affected?
  4. How can we make things better?

The key point is that you’re not supposed to ask “why” which I’ve realised is something we’ve been doing wrong. Whenever the boys do something wrong, the habit is to ask them why they did it. The typical answer I usually get is “I don’t know.” Either that, or silence – neither of which is particularly progressive in getting my boys back onto the right path again.

I like these series of questions because it puts the ownership of making things right in your child’s hands. Your child learns to empathise with the victim which enables them to feel genuine regret for their actions. The desire to make things right follows easily after that.

When something goes wrong, I want my children to feel remorse for what they did and to be truly sorry about what happened but we often struggle to get there unless I club them over the head with my almighty “because I am Mum and I’m telling you should be sorry and look like you mean it”. But even when I get the results I seek, I still end up walking away feeling uncertain about whether the message made it home, or whether my boys have just learned to be really good at doing the necessary to get Mum off their backs.

The restorative justice system of questioning stirred a memory of a disciplinary tactic I had read about a very long time ago called The Teaching Conversation. I read about it in a book by Steve and Shaaron Biddulph titled “Raising a Happy Child“. The questions are sort of similar, but they are only for the offenders:

  1. Take your child aside and wait until he is ready to talk.
  2. Then ask:  What happened?  What did you do?
  3. Then ask:  What were you thinking and feeling?
  4. Then ask:  What do you think you should have done differently?
  5. Then ask:  What will you do to fix this now?
  6. Then ask:  So will you do that now?

I remember using this tactic with G1 when he was very little. Somewhere along the way, I forgot all about it. I must remember to try it again, especially with G2, my frequent repeat offender.

The main difference between the teaching conversation and restorative justice for children is that the latter also speaks to the children who have been affected. The victims are also taken through a series of questions:

  1. What happened?
  2. What impact has this incident had on you and others?
  3. What has been the hardest thing for you?
  4. What do you think needs to happen to make things right?

I like this approach because it also addresses the needs of the victim from the victim’s perspective. Most often, when something goes wrong, we address the offender and set a remedial course of action but there is rarely any consideration on how it may or may not affect the victim. The restorative justice system is seeks to reach a mutually satisfactory conclusion for everyone. All parties can move on from the incident because their needs have been met.