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 lie is told mostly to protect the self from the shaming of the person "as less than" that often follows being discovered to have done something which "is less than." Again an important distinction between "being less than" and having "done something less than."
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. Whether a child experiences having less than as shame or embarrassment is largely dependent on whether they see “having less than” (embarrassment) as an indication of “being less than” (shame). Children will work harder to hide shame than embarrassment, so always bear in mind that if you suspect a child is lying to you, ask yourself what shame they are risking in telling you the truth and how can you separate having less from being less.
I have a beautiful memory of an Art teacher at my high school who during for the last two periods of every Friday from when I was a first year until I was an upper sixth year, we painted, drew or modelled, still life of food stuffs. Fruit, vegetables, eggs, cheese and once a whole chicken still in the supermarket wrapper. And at the end of that class she would casually comment in her thick Ballymena accent (for 7 whole years) a variation of “Anyone who wants to take that off my hands would you? I’m only gonna have to bin it otherwise.” And always there was one or two pupils who would say “Sure Miss, I’ll get rid of that for you.”
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 disapprove of their friend's actions. This one is difficult because on some level we, as a society, approve of the characteristic of loyalty to protect a friend from harm. This is apparent from the derogatory words we use to describe someone who does tell on a friend like “snitches”, “rats”, and a local Northern Ireland one - “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. This is very prevalent in cultures where community reprisals have been historically or are currently active. Children who have strong unresolved 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 believe your intention is not to punish, but to curiously understand what happened so you can help them to repair harm, rebuild relationships, and develop strategies to avoid future problems by meeting the 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!
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?
If you would like to know more, or try out some of our courses which develop the skills to practice restoratively as well as learn the restorative interventions check out our online Introduction to Restorative Practices here, or contact Linda on 07805093965 to book a workshop.
LJ Sayers is a restorative practitioner, trainer, mum, partner, mediocre saxophonist and excellent chocolate quality controller.