One of the most common questions I encounter when working with educators in building restorative practice into their schools is “what do you do when a child flat out denies that they are responsible for a harm that has been caused?” This question goes to the very heart of why restorative practice is a culture that needs to be cultivated and not just an intervention applied at the point of conflict.
To understand what to do about this when it happens (and it will happen) you have to first understand the motivation behind why children (and adults) deny responsibility for something they have done that has caused harm to others. While the research on motivation for telling lies lists hundreds of reasons why someone might lie from protecting others, to tact, when it comes to school based examples there are a handful of common motivations.
This is probably the most common reason for telling a lie when a child is confronted with the direct question about what happened. If the child believes there will be a punishment following an admission then there is an increased motivation to tell a lie to avoid punishment. The lie is not an attempt to avoid responsibility (and this is an important distinction) the lie is told to avoid the punishment.
Concealing reward or benefit
In this case the motivation is to conceal the reward or benefit the child obtained by breaking an explicit or implicit rule which they were expected to follow. This could be anything from having stolen something from a peer to having peeked at their neighbours test sheet and copied the answer.
This is a common motivation when the child feels guilt about the impact of their actions but also fears that they will be shamed for that impact, rather than understood. An example might be the child who denies they were given the homework instead of admitting that they did not have enough money to buy the supplies to complete it.
Protecting someone else from harm
In this case the motivation is that the child does not want to get their friend into trouble. It might be because they can identify with their friends reasons for having acted as they did, and so in some way they approve of their actions. Or it can be that they feel the need to adhere to a “bro-code” even if they disagree with their friends actions. This one is difficult because on some level we, as a society, approve of the characteristic of loyalty that comes in hand with lying to protect someone else from harm. This is apparent from the derogatory words we use to describe someone who does tell on a friend like “snitches”, “rats”, “tout.”
Pain is the name of the game
Ultimately the underlying purpose of all of these motivations is the same. The purpose of avoiding pain which could be physical, social, or psychological pain. Human beings are hard wired to seek out pleasure and joy and to avoid pain and distress and our brain psychology has many ways of achieving this. Therefore the temptation to tell a lie when faced with pain as a possible outcome of telling the truth is a very strong one and it is not limited to children. We all have the capacity to tell lies, omit truths, or deny knowledge of something when the motivation to avoid a temporary painful experience outweighs the benefit of an admission.
If children believe that your intention behind discovery of “What Happened” is to punish, shame or cause pain (physical, social or psychological – even indirectly and unintentionally) then there is a strong motivation to avoid responsibility by denying fault. The Admit Nothing, Deny Everything, and Ask for Proof phenomena is likely to be even more acute with children (or adults) where they have had life experiences which have reinforced punishment or pain as a response to admitting responsibility or being found guilty of something. Children who have strong unresolved shame behaviours (see my earlier posts on shame behaviours) are highly motivated to avoid pain through any means necessary to protect their physical, social and psychological being.
But what if you build a culture where children understand your intention is not to punish, but to understand what happened so you can help them to repair harm, rebuild relationships, and develop strategies to meet their own needs which led to the harmful event in the first place? This sounds more complicated than it actually is. Most teachers I encounter in my training have these skills already but perhaps aren’t thinking about them explicitly or applying them deliberately in a consistent model of practice. As a result, when they are tired, their defences are down and they are “winging it,” (and lets be honest – we all do this from time to time because we are human too), then the wheels come off and we undo great progress we had previously made with children who are less confident about telling the truth and not being shamed and judged as a result. Don’t worry, if you have ruptured a relationship with a child through a momentary lapse of your superhero powers, you can repair this with daring to be vulnerable enough to admit to them that you got it wrong – and the impact of this on your relationship with them is so powerful you will wish you apologised more! See my earlier post on rupture and repair.
Building a restorative culture to reduce denial, lies, and avoidance?
So what are the key features of building a culture where children can feel able to risk being honest, knowing that there may be a temporary experience of discomfort but with a more permanent pleasurable outcome in the long term?