I never looked to my future and said, “Man, I hope one day I’m in charge of resolving all middle school drama.” I’d actually bet a lot of money that no one has ever said that – why would you? It’s endless and impossible and it’s middle school drama. But now, here I am, in charge of magically fixing any and all issues that gets near my office. Thankfully, I’ve gradually become pretty well trained in Restorative Justice, which is a great tool to have. That means a lot of things (and is worth Googling) but in this context it’s a structure we use to facilitate dialogue when trying to repair relationships at school. It requires accepting responsibility and then making a plan for how to fix what’s happened and move forward successfully.
We have a boy and a girl who have been bothering one another for years. They call names, hide belongings, chase one another around, and generally try to find ways to make the other one mad. It escalated to the point where they’ve started to deserve disciplinary action for some of the things they’ve done, and parents are absolutely fed up with hearing their children complain about what the other child is doing. I’m perfectly aware that discipline alone won’t fix this type of thing, but restorative dialogue usually does. Unfortunately this boy is involved, and he’s so stunningly terrible at taking responsibility that it seemed basically impossible to make dialogue work. When someone automatically denies everything, it’s pretty hard to move forward.
Finally, I got desperate to make the conflict stop, so I called both mothers and explained the process of restorative dialogue. I figured maybe if they were participating with us, Mom might be able to get her son to cooperate at some level. We went back and forth on scheduling for too long, and finally agreed to meet on this lovely Sunday afternoon and work things out.
I was terrified. Facilitation just with these two kids would have been hard enough, but I’ve also never run a conversation that included parents. My biggest concern was that the kids would refuse to tell the truth about what was happening, we wouldn’t get anywhere, everyone would leave frustrated, and my last idea for a solution would be ruined. To calm my anxiety, I worked hard with both kids, one-on-one, to prep them. I got them invested in a successful conversation, helped them script answers to all the questions, and then role-played the discussion with them. We practiced over and over until they each seemed comfortable and ready. And then I crossed my fingers and waited.
My fears were totally misplaced. The kids were wonderful, reading from their scripts and showing off their manners. Both of them took responsibility like champions. It was the mothers who were the problem. They were (understandably) angry about all the conflict that had been happening, which caused each to be protective of her own child and blatantly distrusting of the other family. They ended up shooting poorly-disguised barbs at the other one’s parenting skills and complaining about the inconvenience of meeting on a Sunday instead of answering my questions. Let’s talk about what awkward feels like.
And then we got to the “how do we fix it?” part. The kids did a typical let’s-apologize-to-each-other piece, and then I suggested that there might be other people in the room who also deserved an apology. They thought for a minute, and then the boy jumped in to speak first.
“I want to apologize to Girl’s mom. It must be hard for her to have her daughter come home all the time talking about problems, and it’s me that’s causing that for her. She probably worries about Girl and about what I might do to her at school. I didn’t mean for that to happen and I shouldn’t be doing those things and I’m sorry that I made her upset.
“And I want to apologize to my mom too. She always wants the best for me and wants me to do a good job, and I keep messing it up. She always has to take time out of work to get phone calls about my behavior or come have meetings at school. She’s always there for me and I’m sorry I keep getting in trouble.”
I teared up listening to him talk. It was a beautiful, heartfelt answer, and it was completely unscripted. It was kind and empathetic and mature and sweet, and he held eye contact with each mom while he said his piece. The girl followed and did basically the same thing. By the time both kids had finished talking, all the tension in the room was gone. The rest of the conversation sailed by smoothly, with the moms nodding along as the other one spoke and agreeing with pretty much everything that was said. The kids were glowing with pride and the moms weren’t complaining about their Sundays anymore.
It was all I could do not to bear hug that boy as he left. Who would have guessed that Mr. I-Didn’t-Do-It would be the star of the show?