As a dad to two young, beautiful children, I am very aware of the challenges of being a parent. I know the immense joy of observing my children and also the want-to-put-my-head-through-a-wall-twice difficulty of certain behaviors.
I was asked recently by a good friend if I use a restorative justice approach to parenting. Indeed, I do. Here’s a few thoughts on this relational method, particularly when it comes to the “D” word, discipline:
1) Focus on the relationship, not the behaviour
As a parent I often place a negative intent on my children’s behavior. For example, when they throw a temper tantrum, I assume it is to manipulate me to get their way. Sure, this may be true in (very small) part, but the reality is that behaviour is more closely related to the developmental stage of the child/teenager, as well as stuff that is going on in their environment. So instead of getting sucked into it, I try to think about the kind of relationship that I want to have with my children because:
a) temper tantrums are normal, their little brains are growing and
b) my relationship with my child is a key environmental factor that affects their behaviour
What does it mean to focus on the relationship?
2) Focus on the long-term, not the quick fix
My partner and I have committed to not spanking. Hitting (as spanking is more aptly called) works to fix behaviours (in the short-term) because it creates fear of the consequence itself. But in the long-term it damages the parent-child relationship as well as the child’s ability to feel (shuts them down) or their ability to be guided by their own intuition (again, shuts them down). There’s lots of good research on this.
Instead, I’ve slowly come to accept that as a parent I am a broken record. I repeat myself over and over and over and over again (and over and over again). Did I mention that I repeat myself? But I try very hard to do this in a kind and calm manner. I want my children to build the capacity to be guided by a compass of kindness and respect. But it will take time for their brains to develop this way. How do I support them to get there?
3) Ask restorative justice questions, not blaming or shaming
I’ve caught myself at times lecturing my children. Saying the same thing in about 10 different ways, hoping that it will sink in. “Why do you hit your sister?”; “Why did you hit your sister?”; “Don’t you know that hitting hurts?”; “How do you like when you get hit?”; “No, you don’t like it, do you?!”; “We talked about this yesterday”; “We talked about this five minutes ago”; “Blah, blah, blah, blah…blah”; As if that’s not enough, my body language and tone of voice indicate that the fires of hell await anyone who should dare hit their sister.
Within my quotes there are some important messages — (a) hitting hurts, (b) it has an affect on people and (c) I expect better behaviour. But the message is so distorted by the blame and shame lecture style – how I’m framing what I say and the body language and tone of voice I’m using – that it is easily lost in translation. My child stares back at me or off into space, thinking “can I just go back to what I was doing?!”
On my better days I move into restorative justice mode, asking important questions — that don’t seek to blame or shame but move towards holding my children accountable in respectful, safe, and kind ways. After a brief timeout, where I sit with my child, I ask:
- What happened?
- Who was hurt? How did that affect them?
- What do you need to do to take responsibility?
- What do you need to do to make things right?
- I remind them that they are a good person and that everyone makes mistakes
- I remind them that respect and kindness are very important to me
I want my children to be good people, so I better do parenting in ways that model and support this.
4) Get perspective, not tunnel-vision
I’ve started to fast-forward, to imagining a time when my children are adults, we’re sitting in my backyard drinking a cold beverage (likely something from the Wellington County brewery) and we’re talking about life in a relaxed, calm way. It’s a good relationship because I’ve worked hard to be kind and taken responsibility when I have not. It’s not necessarily a friendship, but the parenting role has evolved over time. It’s a mature relationship. These thoughts help break my narrow thinking and the way I can so easily become overwhelmed by my children’s challenging behaviours. It gives me perspective.
Is this method foolproof? No. If it were, I’d be Dr. Phil or off on some tropical island tabulating my book royalties. Is it my best chance of holding my head high at the end of a long day of parenting? You bet.
[In addition to being a husband and father of two, Judah Oudshoorn (MA ’06) is a restorative justice mediator for the Correctional Service of Canada and a lecturer in the Peace and Conflict Studies program at the University of Waterloo (Conrad Grebel University College). This post originally appeared on his blog, Justice With a Crunch, where he writes about restorative justice work.]