This past Wednesday our youth group talked about “sibling rivalry” as part of a three-week series called, “Family Ties.” As part of the night, Andrew Boone interviewed Cindy, Brenda, Lexi, and I about our family dynamics. As we shared about how our family works, we mentioned how restorative justice has helped keep conflicts from escalating in our home.

I’ve talked about this before, but for those who might be interested, I’d like to explain this important concept again.

It’s inevitable that family members will hurt one another.  Sometimes it’s intentional, sometimes accidental.  Sometimes it involves an action done and sometimes it’s something neglected.  Sometimes it involves words, sometimes simply body language.  The hurt is caused by unawareness of others (at best) and disrespectful hate (at worst.)  In any case, it’s always hurtful to family harmony and therefore requires some sort of response from us parents.

But how should we respond to such hurtful treatment?  Here are two common responses that I think fall short:

Punishment.  Often parents inflict punishments that have no relationship to the hurt that was caused.  Spanking.  Being sent to your room.  Grounding.  Loss of computer privileges, etc.  I know these parents are well-meaning in what they are doing. However, I suggest that this response falls short — the wounded party remains wounded and the offending party feels arbitrarily punished, which breeds resentment. The goal of family harmony has not been reached.

Requiring Apologies.  Sometimes parents take another approach at resolving the issue by forcing an apology.   Apologies are a good thing and they do bring healing when they’re genuine. The problem with this is that if the offender isn’t truly sorry about what he did, he can’t honestly apologize, so this forces him to lie.  True, you may get a lip-service apology, but it’s not heartfelt and I would suggest that the wounded party remains wounded (perhaps more so because a false apology adds insult to injury).  And the offender has been encouraged to simply go through the motions. Again, this falls short of the goal.

So what’s the alternative?  I suggest…

Restorative justice.   The idea here is that when one family member hurts another, the response should primarily involve giving the victim justice rather than punishing the offender.   If something is stolen, it must be returned.  If someone has been dealt pain, they should be given pleasure.  If someone has been treated disrespectfully, they should be treated with respect.  If someone is cut down, they should be built up.  (By the way, i consider put-downs, sassing, sarcasm, and sneering as a robbery of self-worth, so restoring self-worth is the appropriate antidote even for these.)

This idea stems from the very nature of God Himself–His justice! The concept here is that the victimizer must repay the victim — whether he is sorry or not. The injustice must be acknowledged and the offender (if of age) should have to propose some sort of compensation that will sufficiently right his wrongs. The victim (if of age) needs to determine if the proposal is sufficient compensation or not.  If the two parties can’t agree on proper compensation, then the parents will need to intervene and assign whatever is appropriate.

(By the way, this principle should apply to offending parents as well as the kids–everyone deserves to be treated with value and everyone needs to make things right when we fall short of that!)

Restorative Justice is how we run our home, and I credit it with giving us a great deal of family harmony which is a great treasure to us. And it’s self-perpetuating. Brenda and Lexi have learned to resolve their own injustice issues without much intervention from us at all.

But beyond the immediate family harmony that we enjoy today, there’s also a longer-lasting benefit I’d like to mention: building character for life!  Restorative Justice has become so ingrained in our family system that it’s now just the way we think. We’ve learned that all people are made in the image of God and therefore deserve to be treated with respect and that we must always make things right when we inevitably hurt one another!