Why restorative justice schools should teach skills in shame and pride management

Valerie Braithwaite is an Emeritus Professor in the School of Regulation and Global Governance, Australian National University (ANU). Her current research focuses on people’s relationships with authority, how trust breaks down and how it can be rebuilt in health, education and work contexts. She is co-editor (with Gale Burford and John Braithwaite) of Restorative and Responsive Human Services and co-author with Eliza Ahmed, Nathan Harris and John Braithwaite of Shame Management through Reintegration.

Shame and pride are emotions that cause “prickles” in restorative justice conversations. The prickle is not caused by the feelings – these are the most human of feelings, but rather how we talk and think about them. We think of them as attributes that vilify or lionise individuals. Instead, we should think of them as the most human of emotions for connection, disconnection, and restoration. Shame and pride can be our weakness and our strength. It all depends on our capacity to manage them well.  

Many westerners puzzle over how we can talk about shame in such a positive way. Isn’t it the emotion of worthlessness and isn’t that the opposite of what restorative justice offers us? This seeming paradox is resolved by a simple insight. Having moments of feeling worthless can be as beneficial as having moments of pain when we take a tumble off our bike. We are forced to stop, to focus on ourselves and our pain, and do what is necessary to pick ourselves up. If the bike accident results in a bloody knee, cleaning the wound and bandaging it up will do the trick. If we have broken a bone, we need a doctor. But most times we can treat our wound ourselves or with a little help from others.

So too with shame. Most times we treat ourselves or with a little help from others. Sometimes we need special help to know how to manage shame when it overcomes us completely. It is true that some people are overwhelmed by worthlessness and shamefulness. But most of us are not in this situation. Most of us come into this world with a healthy desire to find our place and we believe we deserve that.

Shame is complex because there are many different ways we may come to feel ashamed, and it is sometimes difficult to pinpoint the source. But thinking through this emotion is a good thing for us to do. Denying it is harmful. It leaves us vulnerable to making the same mistake again. So often with shame, we say to our friends or loved ones: “Don’t blame yourself, don’t feel bad, it is not your fault.” Conversely, we all like when friends and loved ones communicate this to us as well. And as we work through the terrible feeling of shame, we need that. But deep down we need to consider the possibility we are at fault. We need to do the analysis in the harsh light of day.

Then comes the task of management. This is not something we are born with, which becomes obvious when we think of our favourite toddler having a tantrum. Yet we know in no time at all she will find more socially acceptable ways of negotiating with her parents. Managing shame and other emotions is something that we learn, hopefully from good role models in the family, but if not from teachers or family friends who mentor us. Sometimes, however, we don’t learn until much later in life. Not learning to manage shame when we are younger often ends up resulting in more shame that impedes our well-being and connection with others as we grow older.

I am part of a research group that includes Eliza Ahmed, John Braithwaite, Nathan Harris, and Helene Shin who have argued shame and pride have a central role to play in the restorative process. Yes, shame is a most terrible feeling in that we want to crawl into a hole and never come out. And yes, pride as we are told in the fables comes before a fall and can crush the goodwill and spirits of those around us. But while both shame and pride have a dark side that disrupts social relationships and prevents self-care, they have a positive side that depends on learning to manage these emotions well.

Those who learn to manage shame and pride well in their early years are fortunate. When carers are skilled in managing shame, children are likely to have some basics too and learn to hone these skills as they interact with other children in kindergarten and primary school. Learning to manage shame is not unlike learning to read. It takes time, many false starts, and can be quite scarry. It is much easier to say “Sorry Mummy I spat at you” or “sorry Mummy I hit you” than to say sorry to someone at school for hitting them or scrunching up their drawing.

First and foremost, mummy is more likely to respond with a hug and forgiveness. Who knows what would happen at school! Similarly with pride. Claiming to be the best in the class at football to mum and dad may be met by a gentle reminder that sometimes others may win and not you. At school, pride expressed through boasting and bragging can be dealt with by other students quite harshly. As explained below, poor shame and pride management skills are implicated in bullying incidents in schools. But first we need to understand what shame has to do with these common scenarios of children behaving in ways that are disruptive, unlovable, and potentially harmful.

The events that trigger the spitting or hitting or the scrunched-up drawing vary. Observation and conversations with a child can help identify these triggers. Ross Greene suggests lagging skills (lagging for their age group) can be one of the most common reasons why children have emotional outbursts and disruptive behaviours. A lagging skill is evident when children can’t do something that adults expect and the child thinks they should be able to do. Progress can be made through working with the child to identify lagging skills and working together in small steps to master each skill.

Nathan Harris gives an additional twist to these ideas through allowing shame and pride management to be an additional layer of skills that may lag. Harris describes us as wanting to live up to our ethical identity, our best self. This image we have of ourselves comprises what we can do in terms of our competence (for example, being good at schoolwork or good at sport or quick to finish tasks) and our virtue (for example, being honest or kind or well-liked). Our ethical identity is shaped by our social environment, that is, what carers and teachers expect of us as well as our peers, particularly those people whom we look up to. When we do things that fall short of our ethical identity, we may see that mismatch for ourselves, or someone may point this out to us. Either way, we are struck by a wave of shame.

School bullying and shame and pride management

In our research on bullying, we have found children manage this wave of shame when they are called to account (by themselves or others) in ways that are socially adaptive, and not socially adaptive. They can acknowledge shame by saying that they did the wrong thing, feel guilty, and want to make amends. Or they can displace shame by blaming someone else, expressing anger toward other people or things, or maybe even through denying that it was them. It is not uncommon to waiver between these two responses as we try to manage shame. But ideally we eventually settle on acknowledgment. We accept responsibility, make amends, learn our lesson, and do better next time.

Learning to manage shame through experience occurs in the context of bullying. In Eliza Ahmed’s research we found children who had bullied someone and could acknowledge shame retained that skill later on and were less likely to become involved in further bullying episodes. Once they experienced what it was like to bully someone, processed this empathically, and learned to manage that shame in a socially adaptive way, they could navigate around bullying episodes in the future. Acquiring that skill through life experience was valuable.

But not all children learn as quickly or have opportunity to learn in the same way. Some have lagging shame management skills or become caught in the practice of shame displacement. Children who are most frightened of being harmed in their social environments are least likely to acknowledge shame. This is why punishment is counterproductive. For children who live in unsafe environments, it may be quite dangerous to acknowledge what they did. As undesirable as shame displacement is, it may have survival value for children in certain contexts if they want to avoid being harmed.

Our research on bullying has taught us some valuable lessons about shame and pride management.

  1. Children involved in bullying incidents as a perpetrator are less likely to acknowledge shame over bullying incidents and are more likely to displace shame.
  2. Children involved in bullying incidents, sometimes as a perpetrator and sometimes as a victim, are likely to both acknowledge shame and displace shame.
  3. Children change over time. Bullying children can grow out of being bullied. The children who have most difficulty are those who are bullying sometimes and being bullied at other times. These children also are experiencing a bundle of troubles.
  4. The environment conveys expectations and plays a role in moulding individual and collective ethical identities. Schools lower bullying rates when they make clear bullying is not ok, when they attend to the prevention of bullying, and when they deal effectively with bullying when it occurs. This is an important part of creating safe space for children to learn shame and pride management skills as well as moulding an ethical identity.
  5. Significant others play an important role in helping children learn to manage shame and pride. They serve as role models and create safe space for talking about shame and pride that overwhelms self and others. Parents who correct their children without stigmatising them improve prospects for good shame management. Forgiveness of children after identifying their mistake has also been linked with better shame management.

The institution of the restorative school

The next part of this story is institutional  – making sure that all children have a chance to learn to manage their shame regardless of their background. This is where restorative justice has such an important role to play. In a safe environment where everyone is supported to work through the conflict that has occurred, children can learn about shame management skills, how to manage shame themselves, and how to help others as well.

A restorative context that teaches empathy also is helpful for teaching pride management skills. Bullying in workplace contexts is associated with pride that is vaunted and used to diminish other people. Eliza Ahmed calls this narcissistic pride. She contrasts narcissistic pride with humble pride where success is shared with others. Children can learn to flip natural feelings of pride that err toward narcissism to humble pride. If this is a lagging skill for children, restorative justice is the perfect place for them to learn this skill.

Learning about humble pride and shame acknowledgment in school settings where there is a whole-of-school restorative justice approach operating means it is safe for children to learn these skills. In our research we have found children who are victims of bullying have a propensity to manage shame through acknowledgment. We have also asked ourselves whether this causes trouble for them. One possibility is children who have an all-encompassing sense of not being good enough at anything are targeted for bullying. They ritualistically acknowledge shame regardless of context. They become a target because children who strike out to bully someone will pick on a child who is vulnerable. Another possibility is children who readily acknowledge shame put themselves in an oppositional relationship with children who cannot acknowledge shame. In short they irritate each other, maybe they even disapprove of each other. The difference plays out through repeated attempts at domination, that is, bullying.

Our findings on school bullying, including cyberbullying, emphasise the importance of schools having broad respectful relations programs and strong restorative values that flow through all school activity. But our findings also emphasize the importance of not turning a blind eye to bullying when it occurs. Some will object to the word “enforce” in relation to countering bullying. But enforce is not synonymous with punishment. Enforce means this is the standard we expect everyone to observe, and we will intervene when that standard is breached. It is possible to intervene with kindness, even love.

One issue we have talked about a lot but not directly addressed in our research is what happens when the expected standard is arbitrary in the sense that not everyone agrees it is a good thing to aspire to. We have worked on bullying and the vast majority of people agree that bullying does harm and should not be tolerated. But what about competition? Competition in courts, in politics, in business, and in schools can lead to actions that are not particularly kind or considerate. Winning can mean pushing the rules, working around them, maybe even defying them. In such situations, how do we know when we have gone too far, when have we crossed the line? And are we safe in these situations to acknowledge we have done so? Are we better off displacing any shame we might feel or touting our success with expectations that we are so good we don’t have to be accountable for our actions? Readers will recognise these shame and pride management strategies in celebrities and leaders. When we move to corridors of power, life gets much messier. But maybe we even recognise these dilemmas in our own lives, in our workplaces and communities.

None of this, however, is to deny that in school we can learn the principles of shame and pride management that enable us to be our best selves. These skills will make us a better friend,  partner,  parent, or  work colleague. We can also learn in our early years about having a conscience and how to use it. Life will undoubtedly deliver to us many experiences where we let ourselves down. But if we have developed our shame and pride management skills we will be able to reflect on our anger or disappointment, what we expected of ourselves, and think of a way of moving forward constructively. If I had a choice, I would like to learn those skills as soon as possible in life. I would like to have them as part of my repertoire for dealing with life’s challenges. And I would suggest most people feel the same way. What better place to learn them than in a restorative justice school.

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