As parents, we’ve all had that moment. With my daughter, it was when she was one-and-a-half years old. After my stern warning not to throw the sand, we locked eyes, and for that brief second, we both knew that she had heard my warning and had understood it. I was full of hope. Then, keeping full eye contact with me, sand flew up and out of her hand, showering me like snow in the desert.
I wish all my years of parenting were success stories of well-mannered children who always obeyed the rules. But if you’re anything like me, the majority of my parenting experience has been figuring out what punishments to use when they break the rules! But what if there was a different question we could ask?
Over the past year at Sunmarke, we have been exploring the concept of Restorative Justice. As I have been studying how this approach works in the school, I have also been intrigued by how it could apply at home. In many ways, this kind of approach flips parenting on its head and begins to see it through an entirely different lens: relationship.
The key tenant of restorative justice is this: Rather than focusing on punishment for broken rules, it focuses on repairing and restoring broken relationships. Restorative approaches build empathy, responsibility, and respect. It turns every act of disobedience or poor judgement into an opportunity for the child to learn more about themselves and others.It is not, contrary to popular thought, a “soft option” or an easy option – it can take more time and effort, but the research has shown it to be vastly more effective than traditional “punishment” or shame-based models.
If restorative approaches have been proven to work well with tough guys in prison, surely it can work with my misbehaving children, right? So how might it look? There are a few key concepts that make a restorative approach to parenting effectively.
It starts with everyday positive relationship building. Much of the success of this approach comes from creating safe spaces for mutual respect and understanding on a day-to-day basis.
Define expectations clearly. If children do not know what the boundaries and expectations are, or if they keep changing (or are different between parents) it becomes confusing and frustrating.
Respond calmly, or wait (and breathe) until you can! Shouting, hitting, slapping, saying degrading comments – anything that is acting out of anger – is shame-inducing, and works against the concepts of respect in the relationship.
Think about the relationship over the rule. Helping the child think through the damage his/her behaviour has caused those involved builds empathy. But this must also be done calmly and carefully so it does not become a shame-fest. The “restorative questions” are handy for this part, and can be part of a parent-child “restorative chat.”
What were you thinking or feeling at the time?
Who has been affected/harmed by your actions?
How do you feel about the incident now?
What can be done to repair harm and restore the relationship?
By involving children in the process of talking through their thoughts and feelings that led to the behaviour, identifying the damage caused to relationships, and creating solutions for repairing the relationship, children begin to take ownership. Rather than having a punishment imposed on them (no responsibility) they become active participants in resolving the broken relationships (ie broke parents’ trust, hurt your sibling). Surprisingly, when children are asked the last question, their choices of “repair and restore” activities are often better than what we would have chosen! We have had students at Sunmarke come up with some amazing ways to repair damage, like creating a video of positive statements from classmates about a person they had said unkind things to.
By engaging in this process, the goal is to reintegrate them into good standing. We want to avoid children feeling like they have been labelled a bad child, as they will then live out that label. Once they have been restored, it is finished, and a fresh start is offered.
After a good restorative chat, will children mess up again? YES. But the benefits of a restorative approach will become evident each time you do it. Over time we will also be teaching our children to do this process independently and resolve conflict with others in an empathic, mature way.
Stay tuned for a Wellness Wednesday where we can dialogue more about what this style of parenting looks like!
Head of Wellbeing and School Counsellor