YouthZone column: Restorative questions help deepen relationship with a child

Mary Bess Bolling
Mary Bess Bolling, YouthZone Restorative Justice Coordinator

I was at work when I received the call from a school administrator that my daughter had bitten a boy on the playground. My kid bit someone!?

I rocketed down the rabbit hole in my mind: Who was this boy? Was it self-defense? Will my daughter grow up to solve problems with violence and end up in prison?

OK — deep breath. Many wise people have taught me to pause when agitated.

As the restorative justice coordinator at YouthZone, I’ve had training and experience in restorative practices and Community Group Conferencing. Although I am early in my RJ practitioner career, surely there’s something I’ve recently learned that I can use in this situation.

Here are some of the lessons that seemed applicable and how I used them:

1. In restorative practices and justice, we aim to focus on relationships over rules. The rule is, “It is never OK to bite people.” We use our words to solve problems. The relationship is, “Your classmate was hurt on the playground today when you bit him.” Your choice caused him harm.

2. Give voice to the person harmed. Luckily, restorative practices are deeply embedded in the school my daughter attends. The call came after an administrator had finished with a restorative conversation with both children. They were able to hear each other’s thoughts and given an opportunity to make an apology.

3. Give voice to the person who caused the harm. What happened? What were you thinking/feeling at the time? What have you thought about since? Who has been affected by what you have done and how? What do you think you need to do to make things right?

4. Engage in collaborative problem-solving. As my daughter answered the above questions, I actively listened, asked for more information to get a more complete picture and reflected her thoughts back to her. This allowed for some shared effort in coming up with a plan to move forward as positively as possible.

5. Enhance responsibility. I also asked, “What do you need?” One of the things that came out in our conversation was that she was tired when she went to school, and she was impatient and irritated all day. We discussed the importance of bedtimes and how they determine how well or badly the next day goes.

6. Plan for restoration and empower change and growth. Our final plan was: Apologize to the boy (they both did so at school). Practice her coping strategies at home and at school when she feels angry. (Count back from 10, leave the situation, three deep breaths). Identify a safe adult at school she can go to when she feels overwhelmed. (Mom will ask each week who is her safe person.) Avoid the boy for a few weeks or longer until things feel better between them. And finally, she and I would share the responsibility of sticking to an earlier and more consistent bedtime routine.

As it turned out, we had a talk on the stairs where we go for our serious talks, and the nuance in the biting situation came out. She felt scared on the playground and didn’t know what other option she had. She told me she was afraid I’d kick her out of the family when I found out what she’d done — a common shame response I learned about in my RJ work but heartbreaking to hear from your own kid.

In restorative justice practices, we strive to use these common shame responses to bring youth back into the community. Reintegrative shaming separates the deed from the doer, welcoming them back into community while holding them accountable for their actions. The opposite shame response, disintegrative shaming, creates a division between the youth and their community and can contribute to a criminal or delinquent subculture.

Mary Bess Bolling is the restorative justice coordinator for YouthZone. If you’d like to find out more about restorative practices or how to volunteer as a restorative justice facilitator with YouthZone, email or call 970-945-9300.

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