Broken Promises – The Couldn’t / Wouldn’t Phenomena
The “Couldn’t” “Wouldn’t” Phenomena.
So what do you do when it all goes Pete Tong and the child who caused harm doesn’t do what they agreed they would? You’ve been through the restorative process and it worked really well, the two children in conflict told their respective stories, they developed understanding of what happened and how it affected each other and agreements were made to repair the harm and prevent similar harm from happening again. And then the promises get broken. The child doesn’t turn up for their therapeutic input with the school pastoral care, or they stop making the small restitution payments for the phone they smashed belonging to their friend, or they start bullying again. What do you do?
Sometimes, in fact often, these broken promises get met with the “it didn’t work – Restorative Practices are rubbish” condemnation from those who participated. And yet is this really fair? Particularly with children? What adult, as a child, hasn’t made a promise and then reneged on it, or made a half-assed effort? For that matter, what adult, as an adult, hasn’t made a promise and then reneged on it? Children are learning. They are still forming their character and moral compass as they go through life, and it is perfectly natural for them to break promises or lose motivation.
So what do we do? We hold them to account. We teach them to keep the promise, and (just in case you were wondering) it doesn’t matter if it was an important promise or not, whether it was made by a 5 year in a pinky promise, or by a 17 year old in a formal promise to pay restitution for a jacket ripped. It doesn’t matter if it was a completely unfulfilled promise or an almost fulfilled one. What does matter is that we hold them to the promise they made, in the spirit they made it. This is important not just for the person they hurt and made the promise to, but as a life skill. Someday our children will be asked to commit to paying a mortgage or rent for a home they live in. They will be asked to commit to a person to respect, love and honour them. They will be asked to commit to turning up everyday for a job that they will receive money for doing. And if we don’t teach the importance of keeping their commitment, they may well end up homeless, lonely and with no prospects. Teaching commitment is a life skill which reaches far beyond The Promise.
Let’s look at what is going on when children fail to keep a promise they made.
When children fail to keep a promise they have made there can be a variety of reasons why. It isn’t necessarily that they just couldn’t be bothered, although this is sometimes the case – I have a 9 year old and two teenage steps sons and believe me – sometimes they just can’t be bothered!
From my days back in Youth Justice, when we used Circles of Support and Accountability (COSA) to enable highly vulnerable young people to achieve, I have always found the frame below really effective in helping me to figure out how to handle a broken promise.
This basically works on two axis (the “Could Not” and the “Would Not,”) with a broken commitment or promise in the middle. The first thing we need to do is figure out why they have broken the commitment in the first place because this will direct whether we are going to be having a support conversation with them or an accountability conversation with them.
The Could Not Continuum – Capability or Crisis.
Capability is where the child has perhaps promised something which was too ambitious in the first place, or perhaps the child’s circumstances have changed and they are no longer capable of meeting the commitment in the form it was initially promised. Examples of an over ambitious commitment may be where a child promised to pay back the full cost of new blazer they ripped in a scuffle rather than pay for the professional repair of the jacket by a seamstress. Or perhaps they were making regular repayments for a repair of a school blazer they ripped, but a parent was made redundant and now his parents need most of his part time wages or pocket money, to help support the family.
Crisis is where something has happened which has temporarily prevented a child from doing something they promised they would. For example perhaps a child agreed to stay behind after school once a week, for the next 4 weeks and help the school janitor paint graffiti off a school wall, but on week 3 she doesn’t show up because her Granny was taken into hospital the night before and she had to go straight home and look after the younger kids so her Mum could go and visit her Granny.
In both of the above examples, and many more like them, a support conversation is invited.
In the first example your purpose is to either increase the child’s capability by resourcing them with the knowledge, skills or resources that they need to complete the promise they made, or perhaps by altering the boundary around the promise made – such as extending the period of time over which the child might make restitution for the damage he caused. It is never to dismiss the promise made as not important.
In the second example your purpose is to provide temporary relief of timescale, reinforce the promise made and help the child to strategise how she could have prevented this being a broken promise by sharing her crisis with a trusted staff member to ask for her day to be swapped to a different day or the timescale extended. Again, it is never to dismiss the promise made as not important enough to be followed through.
The Would Not Continuum – Commitment or "Chancer"
Commitment is where the child has lost focus on the reason why they made this promise in the first place. Commitment tends to be very high when a child is faced with the impact their behaviour has had on another person and they will most often feel genuinely remorseful and motivated to resolve the harm they caused at the time they made the promise. But we define commitment as maintaining the action to complete the promise long after the feelings, which were present when you made the promise, have passed. And in the fast paced life of a child – this can pass pretty quick! That doesn’t mean they are bad, or unaccountable, or liars, (or any other judgey-type labels) – it just means they’ve lost focus and need to be reminded through an accountability conversation.
The Chancer position is when a child is just chancing their arm to see if they can get away with not doing what they said they would. Now before we all nod sagely and knowingly and a little bit patronisingly, lets just put this in perspective. When was the last time you said you would meet your friend and go to the gym with them to get fit and then you made an excuse at the last minute because you’d had one glass of red wine / bottle of beer too many the night before? We are all chancers from time to time. It’s natural and it's physiological! The human brain is hard wired to take the easy route - it is how the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems in the body work. When something is hard the brain looks for an easier route, the path of least resistance.
The Accountability Conversation
In both of the above examples, and many more like them, an accountability conversation is invited.
In the first example your purpose is to re-engage the child with their commitment and often a simple conversation about their promise will be enough to refocus and motivate their commitment to completing the action. However, it is worth bearing in mind that this might have to be repeated several times if the commitment they made is a long term one taking place over several weeks, so I would advise (if it is appropriate) to keep reparations short and sweet and if they are longer for more serious harms, then build in a quick 10 minute review at intervals.
In the second example your purpose is to re-engage the child in the feelings they had at the time of making the commitment , taking the child back to the reasons why they made the commitment, holding their word up as honourable and asking them to respect themselves by honouring their word. Challenge the child to rise to your expectation and hopefully their own of being an honourable person who keeps their word. It is never to dismiss the promise made as not important.
Regardless of whether the conversation is a support conversation or an accountability conversation it is crucial that we hold children to account for the promises they have made. It is important that we highlight the impact that a broken promise has on us now and on them in the future. And it doesn’t matter if it is a little broken promise or a big one, or an almost completed promise or a just engaged in one – the important point is that we all need to learn to be accountable to others if we are to live in more peace and harmony.
If you would like to learn more about this way of managing conflict and holding to account in your school, you can complete our Introduction to Restorative Practices in Action online course here.
Or you can contact Linda for more information on tailored workshops on 07805093965.
LJ Sayers is a restorative practitioner, trainer, mum, partner, mediocre saxophonist and expert chocolate quality controller.