So what does a ‘traditionally built’ female detective have to do with discipline?  Heaps actually!

Yesterday I was part of a panel chat about discipline on Erica Davis’ morning show on Sydney radio station Hope 103.2.  I talked about the idea of restorative justice versus punitive justice.   It probably sounds like an odd way of approaching behaviour management but for me the philosophy behind what you do is just as important as what you do.  Especially when it comes to discipline.  What we are doing needs to make sense with what we are actually trying to teach our children.

I first started thinking about these ideas when I was studying international relations and the use of state force.  You see, the use of force is limited under international law.  One of the new doctrines that was attracting a lot of attention at this time was the ‘responsibility to protect’.  The generally accepted idea is that it’s not OK for a nation state to use military force against another country unless it is in self-defence.  (Stay with me).  But then what about when something like the Rwanda massacre occurs?  This new doctrine says that the international community has a responsibility to protect a state’s citizens.  If people are being butchered by their own state, the use of ‘protective’ force is acceptable to safeguard the innocent.

So I took these ideas home and started applying them to my then one-year-old.  I decided to try not using ‘punitive force’, like smacking, but using protective force instead.  That means if my kid hits another kid in a George W. Bush style ‘pre-emptive strike’, (ie. aggression dressed up in the language of self-defence, “But she was going to hit me, I just know it!), then rather than smacking my kid I would intervene to protect the other child.  That could mean separating them (putting in a new border), making the ‘hitter’ play elsewhere (extradition), or physically staying present to make sure no more hitting occurs (peacekeeping troops).  Hopefully this also sends a clearer message to the child.  Rather than saying, “You’re not allowed to hit your cousin but I am allowed to hit you,” (like bombing Iraq) my actions will say, “Hitting is not acceptable, and I am here to protect you both.” (The UN).

Enter Mma Ramotswe, fictional proprieter of The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency and enforcer of common sense justice.  Mma Ramotswe is a self-taught private detective (self-taught from the esteemed Clovis Anderson’s seminal instruction book, Principles of Private Detection) who goes about setting right the wrongs in her beautiful home country of Botswana.  Mma Ramotswe solves mysteries and rights wrongs but she almost never involves the law or shames the wrong doer.  Instead she finds ways to ‘restore justice’, to set right what was wrong without punishment.  This doesn’t mean there aren’t consequences for the criminals, but the answer usually involves them taking responsibility for their actions in some way.  Having read about 10 books in the series, I’ve found my thinking constantly being shaped by the idea of ‘restorative justice’, as opposed to ‘punitive justice’ which is designed to hurt the wrong doer and make them regret their action.  Unfortunately, punitive justice tends to create bitterness and resentment between people whereas restorative justice is about restoring trust in the relationship.  I didn’t even realise this concept had found its way into mainstream ideas about discipline until I saw it on the cover of Sydney’s Child last week.  Apparently restorative justice is now being applied among at-risk kids in high schools with massive success.  It’s harder work than just dishing up a punishment, and many of the kids would rather just take the wrap than face up to those they have wronged.  But the long-term results are impressive.

If you’re not convinced, just think about how you feel when you have stuffed up in some way or have let someone down.  What would your prefer?  To be punished, or offered forgiveness?  Adults are not immune from punishing each other.  We do it by withholding affection or intimacy, by avoiding those who we perceive have wronged us, or by giving someone the silent treatment.  (Is this really so different from isolating a child by sending them to their room or putting them on the naughty chair?)  If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of this kind of treatment then you’ll know it hurts like hell.  Especially if you don’t know what you’ve done to deserve the snub.  Different people will respond to that kind of treatment in different ways.  Either they will detach from the relationship so they don’t continue to be hurt, they will confront the person and demand an explanation, or they will try even harder to please the person who is punishing them.  If on the other hand, you already know and have acknowledged what you’ve done wrong, then why do you need to be punished?  What you need at that point is to be restored to the other person, which only comes about through the process of seeking forgiveness and extending grace.  It’s as simple as saying, ‘That’s OK’, ‘Don’t worry about it,’ ‘Thanks for your apology’, ‘I appreciate that.’  I’m not saying that there’s never a time to send a child to their room or put them on the naughty step, but you need to be clear on why you are doing it and be sure that it makes sense in the context of what you’re trying to teach them.

At this point, the advocates of the punitive model usually say, ‘Ah but it’s different, because with children you have to teach them right from wrong by punishing them.’  But is that really so different to adult relationships?  When adults hurt each other, we don’t usually do it deliberately.  We usually hurt each other, or behave badly because we don’t yet know better.  We didn’t realise that thing we did or said or failed to do would be hurtful to that person.  We didn’t understand the way they think or feel, what they expected of us, or what their particular sensitivities were.  Once we have learned and communicated without blaming then we can improve that relationship.  Children usually also stuff-up because they didn’t quite realise what was expected of them, or they didn’t know how to deal with their feelings.  Children, like adults, need to experience the consequences of their mistakes, but we don’t have to make those consequences disproportionate to the original problem.

It is self-evident that you don’t get punished for doing the wrong thing, you get punished for getting caught.  (If you do the wrong thing, but don’t get caught, there’s no punishment.  Also if you are punished unfairly for something you haven’t done, it creates resentment.)  This can lead to deceptive behaviour, lying or far worse a child (and later an adult) who only behaves well when people are watching.  Punishment says, “If you do that behaviour, you will be punished, so don’t do that behaviour again.”  It’s a model based on obedience and good behaviour as the goal.  What I want my children to learn, more than obedience or how to behave, is empathy.  Punishment does not easily model empathy.  When we punish, we switch off our own empathy temporarily.  We leave our child crying on the naughty chair or in their room instead of comforting them, or we smack them with the deliberate intention of hurting them, even though we ourselves would not like to be treated that way.  So the child in response has several choices; to also switch off emotionally and accept the punishment, to rebel against the punishment or to try harder to please us in the future.  Learning to please others is not the same as developing empathy or consideration for others.  Clinical psychologist Lyn Worsely talks about how even babies as young as six weeks who have experienced trauma will look to their caregiver for cues and create fixed expressions that aim to please their parents.  It may be compliant but it’s not necessarily healthy.  And it can lead to anxiety down the track.

So now when I’m faced with a conundrum, rudeness, an injustice or a behaviour I don’t like, I ask myself “What would Mma Ramotswe do?”  (WWMRD?)  How can this problem be solved in a way that respects everybody’s autonomy, encourages each person to take responsibility for their own actions and treats the child as a person in their own right, rather than a puppet, expected to dance when we pull their strings (which, by the way is the American approach to international diplomacy!)

Mma Ramtoswe isn’t perfect.  She isn’t even real.  She doesn’t have all the answers.  She makes mistakes.  But she’s prepared to admit it as the following passage demonstrates:

Mr J.L.B Matekoni looked suprised. 

‘I can’t imagine you making any mistakes,’ he said.  ‘You’re too clever for that.  You would look at all the possibilities and then choose the right one.  Every time.’

Mma Ramotswe snorted.

We all make mistakes.  We don’t usually need to punish each other.  We just have to admit when we’re wrong.

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