I choked up when I watched the heartbreaking viral video of young Keaton Jones crying as he described how the other kids at his middle school have been bullying him. How could you not be touched by his open, honest expression of pain?
The subsequent outpouring of support for Keaton is remarkable. It gives me hope that this young man will understand that he is a valuable, important person. The messages of love, the invitations to meet celebrities, the gifts of money for his future education – all are beautiful and restorative for Keaton and his family.
To my dismay, I also see many messages online about people wanting to go to Keaton’s school and “teach those bullies a lesson.” Responding to cruelty with cruelty will not make things better for all the Keatons in the world.
What we really need is an outpouring of training and education for the students at Keaton’s middle school and at all the middle schools around our country. Bullying peaks in middle school; it is a time when students are the least tolerant of any differences in their peers. They are terrified of not conforming; groupthink is rampant. Few kids are willing to take accountability for their actions; even fewer know how to apologize with meaning.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of apologies. It’s one of the topics I cover the most often in my bullying prevention trainings. The truth is, a forced apology is quite meaningless.
So how best should you respond after you have made a mistake? It’s human nature to become defensive when called out on poor behavior. People usually rush to justify their actions and defend their decisions. I see this time and again with both children and adults.
As such, I focus less on starting with the words, “I’m sorry.” Instead, I like to hear how someone was impacted by another person’s mistake. How were they harmed? What will make it better? Let the apologies come later; they will have more meaning.
These types of questions are called restorative questions, and they originate from a philosophy called restorative justice. The intent is not to punish offenders; rather, the intent is to get offenders to understand the impact of their actions on others, and to find a way to repair any damage that was done. In essence, they learn to empathize with the victims and the broader community, and they learn to right their wrongs. They learn to listen.
Restorative responses also provide a voice to the victims. They get the opportunity to talk about their pain and their suffering. They get to tell their stories and express the full range of ways in which they have been harmed, including emotional tolls such as anxiety and depression. In working through their pain, they are more likely to find peace and healing.
For the students at Keaton’s school, these are the questions that teachers should be asking:
To the person who messed up, learn to say, “OOPS!” Ask:
- What happened? What was the impact of your action?
- Who has been affected/harmed?
- What needs to happen to restore the damage?
To the person who was harmed, learn to say, “OUCH!” Ask:
- How have you been affected/harmed?
- What’s the hardest part for you?
- What would you like to see happen?
There is a path forward, and we have to teach our young people how to do better. Otherwise, cruel teenagers grow up to be cruel adults, and they tend to raise cruel children, and the cycle perpetuates. #StandWithKeatonJones and teach empathy, not hatred.
May we do better for all our children, so that Keaton and every other child who is suffering can find peace and healing.
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Carrie Goldman is the writer of Portrait of an Adoption and the creator of Wear Star Wars Share Star Wars Day. She is an award-winning author, speaker, and bullying prevention educator. Follow Carrie's blog Portrait of an Adoption on Facebook and Twitter
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