Thursday, June 15, 2006

Taking Responsibility

One phrase that is commonly heard in children’s treatment programs is: the children have to learn to take responsibility for their actions. This inevitably means, of course, taking responsibility for their mistakes and negative behaviors- although actually our kids don’t take much responsibility for the positive things they do either.

I’m in favor of taking responsibility for ones’ actions. It is part of working through mistakes that one makes. For example, recently when I forgot about a meeting and thus caused others to scramble around to get the work done, I felt it was important to admit I had messed up and apologize personally to the people I inconvenienced.

Yet when I hear this phrase I cringe because it usually seems to be associated with a punitive response in which we tell the children what they did wrong and they admit it.

Why do we imagine that kids deny what they did, blame others, claim extenuating circumstances? Is it actually because they do not know what they have done? Or is it because they are so ashamed, and feel so hopeless about their behavior that they can not bear to face it? Maybe denial is the only mechanism they know. Certainly they have not learned that one can make a mistake and then work it out- which is a very important skill in life. In the past mistakes may have led to abuse. In fact, in many cases physical abuse came randomly and it was in fact difficult to figure out which mistake had caused it- but the child is sure that they must have done something wrong.

When we punish children by isolation and restriction, does this increase the likelihood that they will take responsibility for their actions in the future? The idea of such systems is that as the child experiences consistently that punishments are associated with certain behaviors and rewards with others, they will make the link and learn to admit and understand their mistakes. Yet this ignores the role of shame. When a child is banished she feels hopeless and lost, and cannot bear to sit and think about what happened. So she may become even more entrenched in blaming others to lessen the pain.

In a Restorative Approach the child does some task in which he makes amends to the person or people his behavior impacted. During this task the child will get an emotional sense of how his behavior did affect the other, developing a deeper internal sense of responsibility. The teenage boy who was threatening to blow up the school has to go to the elementary classrooms and apologize and tell them he will not blow up the school. In doing so he can see that these little kids were actually scared by what he was doing- that his behavior mattered to them. And equally importantly, he learns that when he has messed up there is something he can do about it. He can reassure them. He can work it through. So, instead of feeling worse, more ashamed, and thus insisting more vehemently that it wasn’t his fault, he feels better, knowing that it was his fault, and that he has done something to fix it.

We can help our children learn that what they do does impact others, both positively and negatively. Through creating strong relationships we can help them learn to care whether they affect others. And we can teach them what we all practice every day- that you can make a mistake, the world doesn’t end, your relationships don’t end, and you can do something to make it better.

©2006 The Restorative Approach is a servicemark of the Klingberg Family Centers, Inc.

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