Get more than one person in a room and sooner or later there’s a conflict, as all couples and parents well know.
Parenting in the west is parenting within a social system that punishes any individual who transgresses social mores in proportion to the severity of the offence, known as retributive justice. In short, wrongdoers should be made to suffer, and carry the guilt even after they’ve atoned.
This view reinforces the belief that people do bad things to good people because they are bad. Humanity everywhere is incorrigible, and has always been, and strict measures, fines and incarceration and proportionate punishment are necessary to keep the tenuous peace. It places the weight of responsability entirely on the individual.
It’s hard as parents to create a family view of justice that’s different from the justice typically meeted out in classrooms, offices or courts. Time-out for a child is retributive justice applied at home. It punishes through isolation. It’s vindictive and individualistic.
There’s another moral order in our ancestry, though, and it speaks of a time when we had a greater capacity and patience for complexity and nuance. It recognizes our interdependence, and seeks to restore social health by incorporating the offender into the fabric of the community.
In cultures that rely on a form of restorative justice, it is understood that people do bad things because the community has already failed them. The offender is an indicator of an earlier and unnoticed rift in the communal fabric.
There’s some gratitude for the offender bringing this to light. This is what Rumi calls “the feeling of joy when sudden disappointment comes” with the understanding that pain bears its cure like a child.
Here, a transgression is a call further to heal the culture and strengthen our interdependence. Restoration repairs the harm made by involving everyone affected by the transgression. This approach to justice is deeply relational. It’s kinship-based and fosters kinship as it goes.
Punishing our child or our partner, even subtly, may often be more comfortable than changing the family dynamics or our beliefs. Punishment is a quick fix, a household palliative, that sacrifices one for the good of the status quo.
But the lasting health of the family can only be restored by overcoming our shared resistance to change. That means making room to notice the harm as it arises and together mend the broken bonds. Reconciliation is a restorative cure for all.