When a dispute arises, how do we generally react? How do we teach our children to react when they are upset or angry? Do we have a choice?
Imagine 4th graders who have gotten into a dispute sitting in a circle resolving their differences. A talking piece, such as a ball, is passed from one student to another to facilitate a respectful discussion of the conflict. The dispute might be bullying, name calling, taking something that belonged to another student, or even a conflict between a student and a teacher.
As a student holds the ball, she gets to describe what happened from her perspective, while the others quietly listen. When the ball is passed to the next student, his perception of what happened is listened to by all, and so on around the circle. This is a critical step to understanding, as we often have radically different perceptions of what happened, who was harmed and what caused the harm. Just hearing what others think happened can be a big step toward understanding one another.
In a short YouTube video called Restorative Justice: It's Elementary! a young school girl describes her experience of this type of restorative justice circle used at her school. It is an example of unitive justice, far different from our usual punitive approach. In some schools this is replacing Zero Tolerance as the disciplinary policy, with far better results.
In the video, an administrator at the school points out how teaching children to address conflict in this respectful, restorative way at an early age is training their emotional brains. This will result in their being more successful students at the middle school and high school levels, and eventually, will result in healthier adults.
As the national feud over the Islamic Mosque that is to be built near the site of Ground Zero in New York City grows hotter, what would happen if the opposing sides did what the children in that 4th grade class did, sit in a circle, use a talking piece, and respectfully hear the other side's perspective.
When those 4th graders are adults, will they be able to respond to conflicts over mosques, immigration, abortion, same-sex marriage, or other hot issues of their day using a healing circle? Will they no longer seek to divide the nation with conflicting views of who is good and evil, the way far too many Americans now do?
Perhaps by the time these 4th graders are adults, they will know to immediately circle up and respectfully listen to those with whom they disagree, and even those who have caused them serious harm. Perhaps, as their emotional brains develop differently from the way ours developed, they will quite naturally come together in a shared space and engage in deep listening, being fully present to and respectful of others. Perhaps to them, this will be quite natural, and they will find our endless attacks and counterattacks primitive and cruel.
Perhaps these 4th graders who are learning restorative justice will eventually be emotionally developed to the point of being able to connect to the shared energy of the healing circle and intuitively know when another wants to speak, making the talking piece unnecessary. Perhaps individual leadership will not even be necessary in the circle, as they will be self-governing in a way that we can now only imagine.
In the meantime, we are fortunate to have restorative justice facilitators who can convene a healing circle that includes all the parties to the dispute, and pass the talking piece to manage the discussion in a respectful, orderly way. Still being limited by our emotional development of another kind, this permits us to experience and practice a new way of responding to conflict. Perhaps even our mature brains, with enough practice, will be reshaped so that we, too, will come to see our old patterns of attack as unnecessary.
When a dispute arises, we do have a choice.
Posted on GenuineJustice.com on 8-26-10.