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What Is 'Restorative Parenting' and Is It Right for You?

When she's not writing, Claire Gillespie can most often be found wiping snotty noses, picking up Lego, taking photos of her cat or doing headstands.

Repairing harm instead of strict punishment may be the answer to family conflict

You may have heard of restorative justice — a system of criminal justice that focuses on rehabilitating offenders through reconciliation with victims and the community at large — but what about restorative parenting? According to Denver, Colorado-based nonprofit The Conflict Center, this proactive approach is "intended to use the best of excellent parenting techniques and incorporate the restorative values of empathy, accountability, making things right for everyone in the family."

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Author and family and child behavioral expert Dr. Jennifer Freed explained it further. "Restorative parenting refers to a philosophy that emphasizes repairing harm over punishing and shaming," she said. "It’s the commitment to personal accountability for anyone’s mistakes or wrongdoing and the opportunity with the people that they have intentionally or unintentionally harmed to make things right."

Like all parenting approaches, it might not be right for everyone. "It is only effective within families that have an intention to communicate responsibly and to have all members of the family be willing to take full responsibility when they have made mistakes — including the parents," said Freed, who is also co-founder of AHA! (Attitude. Harmony. Achievement), a youth-focused nonprofit that works to end bullying, improve self-esteem and empower teens through emotional learning and creative expression.

"Restorative parenting works seamlessly if the family has decided to approach each situation of harm or wrongdoing as an opportunity for all family members to work together to make things right," added Freed. "If a family does not have the time or inclination to communicate about harms committed and just wants to rule with power and discipline, this approach would not be advised."

If you think restorative parenting might work for your family, how exactly do you put it into practice? "For people to grow from the mistakes they make that harm others, they need to be part of a process where each person can talk about the impact of the harm on themselves and others, can learn to be accountable and compassionate, can demonstrate empathy and respect for other people’s experiences and learn how to forgive by seeing people actually repair the harm they have done," said Freed.

The Conflict Center suggests the following steps: 

1. Empower with enforceable statements

Parents should explain their needs with clarity, love and assertiveness, teach their children how to make their own decisions and set firm limits and clear boundaries with care and compassion.

2. Diffuse with redirection

Instead of following a pattern of punishment and reward, parents should focus on cooperation, collaboration and responsibility to deal with challenging situations. Brainstorming with all members of the family helps to instill values of atonement and empathy.

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3. Teach with natural and logical consequences

Logical consequences are objective, impersonal, relate directly to the misbehavior, include an element of choice and focus on the present and future, not the past. When explaining consequences, the tone of voice should be respectful and friendly.

4. Repair with restorative circles

Punitive discipline seeks to answer three questions: What rule was broken? (violation); who broke the rule? (responsibility); and how should they be punished? (resolution). With restorative discipline, the questions are different: What happened and what was the harm? (violation); who is responsible? (responsibility) and what needs to be done to repair the harm? (resolution).

A restorative circle sequence might consist of stating the purpose of the meeting (discussing the problem, taking responsibility and repairing harm); agreeing that there will be no interrupting, blaming or attacking; using a "talking piece" to take turns to share stories; brainstorming solutions; and reaching an agreement. Bear in mind that each person may have different actions that are agreed upon and that the person who has been offended or harmed has to be central to the conflict-resolution process.

Freed explained why restorative parenting is a better approach to discipline than strict punishment. "There are numerous studies from schools who use this approach that demonstrate that youth are much less likely to re-offend when given an opportunity to learn from their mistakes rather than being shunned or punished," she said. "We say, 'Make the pain count!' Strict punishment is still an option if people are not willing to be honest and accountable for their mistakes; however, strict punishment as the only option creates shame, isolation and emotional distance. Punishment blames the person and makes them feel bad and wrong, while restorative approaches look at the cost to relationships of the harmful act and seeks to make everyone whole again."

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