It was early in my residential childcare career that I was taught a lesson by a tough (on the outside at least) teenager I have never forgotten. It was mealtime in a home for boys and I was at the dining table with another staff member and three other boys eating dinner. Our protagonist, a 16 year old who was the oldest of the four residents in the centre, was last to the table and I could see him clearly as he came down the stairs from my vantage point at the table. There was a large window in the stairway and, as he passed by, he pulled one of the two curtains clean off the rails, scattering a hundred of those small plastic hooks it seemed all over the hall, and proceeded to sit down and begin eating as if this was somehow the normal way to enter the kitchen. Being wholly unimpressed by this act, and determined to instill some law and order to the house, I turned and informed the young man he was to lose 50p (yes folks it was that long ago) from his pocket money. To which he replied: "thank you Joe for that piece of punishment. It was just what I waiting for and I now completely see the error of my ways. I will never do that again". If your sarcasm receptors are somehow faulty, I can now inform you that I wish that was what he said. Instead, however, he stood up as calmly as he had sat down, went back up the stairs, pulled down the other half of the curtains, came back again, sat down beside me and, cool as you like, announces "that's £1 from my pocket money". Needless to say, having being put in my place, I had the good sense to shut up and was pretty quiet for a time after that.
On reflection now, I can see I was caught in the classic permissive vs punitive dichotomy that dominates so much of society's thinking. The only two options, as I saw it at the time, were to either condone the act or punish the perpetrator. You may be reading this now and wondering, "what other option is there?". If so, don't worry, you are not alone. I reckon half the people I know and meet would see things this way. After all, you don't know what you don't know. As for the story above, their reaction would probably be along the lines of "I'da killed him for that" and believed that the young man should have some other privilege removed, such as further pocket money deducted, reduced free time or increased chores. Something tells me I would have lost any subsequent arms race. At the same time, something also tells me that the boy in question would also have lost, most likely by acting out in a dangerous fashion and getting a criminal record for his efforts (sadly this is ultimately what happened in later years - I am just thankful I didn't precipitate it that day).
So what is this third way? I speak now to those unfamiliar with, new to, or maybe as yet undecided on restorative practice. Imagine the following scenario, where I might have (initially at least) ignored the above act and now ask to talk to the young man after dinner (I've had sixteen years to imagine this and only wish I knew then what I know now):
JP: So what happened before dinner?
Boy: I was pissed off at (this could have been anything but let's say) not being allowed to the Halloween disco.
JP: What were you thinking at the time you were coming down stairs?
Boy: I just wanted to take my anger out on something. Better a set of curtains than hitting one of ye.
JP: True. What are you thinking now?
Boy: I'm going to get docked money and it still won't change your decision on the disco. I was just so mad at the time.
JP: Who was affected by what you did?
Boy: Well. Me by getting money docked. And I suppose it caused a bit of an atmosphere.
JP: In what way do you think the others were affected?
Boy: I didn't think about them really. I suppose they might have been a bit scared.
JP: What do you think needs to happen to put this right?
Boy: Look I'll clean it up now. And I'll say sorry to the others.
JP: C'mon. I'll get the brush for you.
It's not that hard for me to imagine a conversation like that having happened, had I known the ethos and questions of restorative practice at the time. I already had a good relationship with the same boy (hence why he probably went easy on me) and I don't think it would have taken much coaxing to help him take some responsibility and a role in repairing things. Those of us working with young people, be it in schools, youth clubs, residential services or the criminal justice setting owe it to ourselves to treat them as we would wish someone to treat us or our own kids, were the situation to ever be reversed. Punishment has been shown in repeated studies to not work. Let me say leniency is just as bad. There is a third way, which balances rights and responsibilities.
That's restorative practice.
My name is Joe Power and I am the restorative practice development officer in Limerick since May 2018. I first came to RP in 2016 when it was introduced to the residential centre where I also work. I thought I would start to write a little about my experiences in developing both my own understanding of RP, as well as my experiences in trying to spread RP across Limerick. The reason for this is that I find that both my and other people's experiences are remarkably similar and there could well be some opportunity for other's to benefit from these thoughts (or ramblings!!). Anyway I hope you gain something from it. Also please e-mail any thoughts/comments/stories you might have to me at email@example.com. Thank you.