Tuesday, March 08, 2022

"I Didn't Do It!"

"I didn't do it!"

I'd seen the boy push his friend, knocking him to the ground. He was lying there still, whimpering.

His mother had told me, crossly, that she believed in punishment. She understood, however, that I was not going to resort to punishments, although she doubted that I could stick to that, not with her son. "Punishment is the only thing that works," she insisted.

"I saw you push him," I replied matter-of-factly. I strive to never threaten children, even with the volume of my voice, although I will, when I want to make sure my point is made, speak firmly, which I did then, "I can't let you push people."

"I didn't do it!" he shouted again, on the verge of tears himself.

The temptation is to keep pressing, to get him to confess, but there was no point. Everyone involved knew what happened. I was knelling by the fallen friend. I'd already determined that there were no external injuries, so I was rubbing his back. "Malcolm is crying. I'm taking care of him."

"I didn't do it."

This time I let his denail stand. This is the greatest flaw in the theory of punishment: fear of it makes it difficult, even impossible, to come clean and face the harm for which you need to make amends. The threat of harm makes it impossible to deal with the real harm. There are far too many adults in the world like this boy, people in positions of power, people who cannot come clean no matter what. When punishment is off the table, however, it clears the way for making amends.

I focused all of my attention on Malcolm. He shook his head when I asked him if anything hurt. I continued to rub his back. 

Again, the boy said, "I didn't do it," but without energy, almost pleading. I did not need to punish him because he was punishing himself, facing the natural consequences of his behavior, his entire being focused on it. He wasn't denying it any longer, but rather, wishing with all his being that he hadn't done it. We call it regret. It's not uncommon for adults to assert, "I have no regrets." It's meant as a statement of bravado masquerading as strength, but all I hear is a pathetic, "I didn't do it."

We have all done regretful things and the only way to move beyond them is to take responsibility by striving to undo the harm we have done. Punishment leads only to denial. I don't believe anyone who says they have no regrets because none of us has undone all the harm we've caused. "I have no regrets" is just more denial.

Regret is a great teacher, but only if we manage to not allow it to become guilt. And the way to do that is to strive to make amends.

The boy stood watching us as tears brimmed. He picked up a toy truck and tried to hand it to Malcolm, but it was refused. He squatted down and put his face into Malcolm's, "I didn't mean to."

Malcolm replied softly, "Yes, you did."

Now the boy broke into a full cry, "I'm sorry!" He dropped down beside Malcolm, putting his arm around him, his hand replacing mine on his back. Malcolm placed his hand on his friend's head and they lay there for a time, in the dirt, a picture of regret and forgiveness.


"I recommend these books to everyone concerned with children and the future of humanity." ~Peter Gray, Ph.D. If you want to see what Dr. Gray is talking about you can find Teacher Tom's First Book and Teacher Tom's Second Book right here

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