A friend who is the mother of three young children came to see me this week, beaming and eager to share a story. The last several months, we have had many discussions around discipline and punishment, two of my favorite parenting subjects.
Making amends: the step beyond discipline
A disciplining concept I think is life-changing for both children and parents involves appreciating the power and importance of having kids make amends when they make very normal, predictable mistakes that result in hurting someone else.
I shared this information with my friend, telling her that even young children are capable of understanding the idea of doing something positive to pay back when they hurt someone else—even if they hurt that person out of justified frustration, or because they were impulsive and not thinking.
My friend said, “My son was frustrated about something his sister said or did, and he hauled off and hit her. Hard. It made her cry. In the past I probably would have punished him. And after talking with you I have been using the phrase, ‘You hit, you sit,” [Barbara Colorosso: Kids Are Worth It] instead of punishing him.
“But that really doesn’t teach him to be responsible for his actions; it just forces him to remove himself and hopefully calm down, which are good things, but aren’t really teaching a lesson.
“Since you and I talked, I have also been talking with my kids about the idea of making amends when something you do hurts someone else. I didn’t realize that even at the young age of four, he was beginning to understand the concept.
“After he calmed down, he seemed to realize that he was the reason his sister had cried. Then he asked me for permission to cross the street, something I allowed because there is a park and we live on a very quiet street. A little while later he came back with a bouquet of buttercups he had picked and he proceeded to give these to his sister.
“Later, he told me he did this because he knows she loves flowers and he said he wanted to make her feel better because he had hit her. He even said he did it so he could make amends!
“When he gave the flowers to her, she was delighted and immediately hugged him, at which point he hugged her back. A very sweet moment that would not have happened if he didn’t understand that he had the power to make amends for his actions.
“It wouldn’t have happened if I punished him or forced him to say, ‘I’m sorry’ when he probably wasn’t feeling that way. He did this because he really was feeling sorry and now knows that he and anyone can make amends when they make mistakes.”
My friend was beaming and getting teary.
I confess I was getting a little teary too.
She continued, “I’m sure he’s going to do lots more things that he shouldn’t because that’s what children do. But by teaching my children that they can make amends when they make mistakes, they are learning to take responsibility for their actions. They are beginning to understand the power of finding ways to help fix or help repair any physical or emotional pain they have caused, even if it was accidental or impulsive.”
Why punish when making amends is healing?
Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we all adopted the approach that when we make mistakes and hurt others, our response is to find meaningful ways to make amends rather than punish ourselves or be punished by someone else?
And as this story shows, even very young children can learn that they can make amends when they make mistakes.
This frees both the injured party and the perpetrator to repair the relationship, reconnect and move on. If the perpetrator, it frees them from feeling unhealthy guilt or shame. It also frees the victim from feeling wounded and resentful.
Too, it’s a lot easier on parents because they put the responsibility on the erring child to figure out how to make amends instead of having to decide themselves what kind of consequences to dole out. It’s a win/win situation!
Invitation to Reflect
1. When one of your children hurts someone else, which often happens in sibling relationships, how do you typically respond? Does your response offer opportunities for the “perpetrator” to make amends?
2. What do you observe happens if you punish children for hurting someone else, either physically or emotionally (this includes things like taking another child’s toys or name-calling, mocking or bullying)? Have you noticed the tendency for children to become resentful, vengeful and/or filled with shame as a result of being punished? What do you observe in the relationship between the children involved?
3. Are you willing to relinquish your power to punish and instead teach about the process of making amends?
4. Can you think of ways this whole concept of amend-making could relate to you when you make mistakes?
Diane Wagenhals, Director of Institute for Professional Education and Development, Lakeside Educational Network