Tulane VISTA Blog

Fighting Poverty with Passion

Our Obsession with Punishment III: Unlearning

Tom learning and listening

Tom learning and listening

I don’t understand our obsession with punishment. It drives those most in need of loving care away from whatever community they are deviating in.  Despite all the anger I feel, I am called as a person of faith to believe in the inherent goodness of people.  Despite wanting to admonish those who punish, I must see that they are without the tools that would actually make them in right relationship with those they punish.  They don’t have the ability, capacity or techniques to teach the lessons they mean to teach: empathy, responsibility, accountability.

Punishment is not normal and separatinging youth from positive spaces is not normal. These are the lessons we need to unlearn.  The underlying logic is that the deviant is upset by the disconnect from community and will feel compelled to make things right to come back into right relationship. But when have they been taught to value that? When were they taught that schools and churches and communities valued them and were worth working for?

Community members training in Restorative techniques

Community members training in Restorative techniques

In attempts to teach right relationship, we need to unlearn our habit, reflex, of punishing.  The Center for Restorative Approaches attempts to teach alternative techniques in hopes that we can all practice new habits.  As educators, parents, and adults we need to bring structure to our youth but also support them and guide them toward right action, toward right relationship.  To do otherwise is to further alienate them and leave them little reason to continue to respect the community’s rules and practices.

We need to restore the relationships of those deviating in our communities and support them.  For a process to be restorative it must:

  • focus on relationships rather than rules

  • provide equal opportunity for everyone involved in and affected by an issue to speak and be heard (face-to-face) and to participate in decision-making.

  • be voluntary for all participants.

  • address the needs of those impacted by harmful actions.

  • give those responsible for causing harm an opportunity to understand how their actions impacted others and a chance to make things right.

  • separate the deed from the doer and the person from the problem.

These are not easy habits to practice, especially when our normal starting place is authority and punishment. Unlearning these bad habits of hiding behind rules instead of values and speaking without listening is not easy.  But even if done imperfectly, attempting to be more restorative with those entrusted to your care will make a difference. I believe that with all my heart and experience.

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This entry was posted on December 1, 2014 by in VISTA Field Reports and tagged , , , , .

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