Restorative Justice and Grit

A common theme in current educational discourse is “grit.” Over the last few years, I have noticed a constant stream of news articles, podcasts, TED Talks, and studies looking at the importance of grit and how we can help students develop it.

The idea behind grit is that we need to start encouraging students to take pride in working hard to improve rather than only giving praise for what a student has accomplished. Articles directed at parents talk about shifting your language in praising your child from “You are so smart!” to “You did a great job on this, you must have worked really hard!” A child who is told she has achieved something because she is smart will begin to see that intelligence as an innate, fixed thing.  When the child encounters something challenging or beyond her ability, she may not see that she can work hard, practice, and improve her ability. Many smart children end up feeling afraid to try something more challenging because the idea of failure is scary and compromises their self-image as a “smart kid.”

I have certainly seen aspects of this show up in my own life, even into adulthood. The first time I applied for a Fulbright scholarship, I didn’t tell many people because I was afraid of the embarrassment I would feel if I didn’t get it. When I was named an alternate, it took a lot of self-convincing and making a conscious decision that I wanted to develop my grit to give it a second try. Just a few weeks ago when I entered the 3 minute thesis completion, I did the same thing. I didn’t tell my advisor or friends I was competing because I knew I would feel embarrassed if I didn’t win. When I turned in a first draft of a chapter of my thesis to my advisor and received a red-marked copy back, I felt that same feeling of shame. I want to be the smart kid, the perfect kid; that is how I feel pride and self-worth. When I don’t achieve that “smart kid” status, I instead feel shame.

Focusing on grit allows us to shift the source of pride from the achievement to the honest effort. From the grit perspective, I should feel pride that I tried again and applied for the Fulbright a second time. I should feel pride that I took my adviser’s comments and turned in another draft, and another, and another, improving it each time.

I think this re-frame that focusing on grit provides also applies to restorative justice. In restorative justice, there aren’t “good people” and “bad people,” there are just people, who frequently make mistakes. If our sense of self and pride are determined by a single act, people can be labelled “criminals” and pushed out of society. There is no room for putting in the hard work to repair the harms and improve yourself. This is what restorative justice provides. When an offender goes through restorative justice, he/she has the chance to take pride in putting in the work to make things right. Just like students who take a test aren’t “smart” or “dumb,” a person who commits a crime isn’t a “criminal” and a person who follows the law isn’t a “good citizen.” We are all just working hard to do better, whether it is on a test, or a paper, or in a relationship, or in life. The pride is in not running from a struggle or letting it consume you, but instead putting in the hard work do better.

Another important point is that the hard work cannot be done alone. We all need help to get better. I recently listened to a Freakenomics episode called “How to Become Great at Just About Anything.” The episode argued that “talent” is overrated and deliberate practice is the true secret to excellence. The really important piece of the argument was that the practice cannot be doing the same thing over and over again. We all need mentors guiding us and supporting us in order to actually improve. I could sit at my computer writing and writing, but without my adviser’s insight and suggestions, I likely wouldn’t get much better. Similarly, people who have committed a crime often can’t just work hard and make things right. Often, the criminal behavior itself stems from an unmet need whether that need be financial, physical, social or emotional. Part of an effective justice response needs to involve people who can help identify those needs and find ways to fulfil those needs in pro-social ways. Then, with support, the offender can take pride in working hard to make things right.

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