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Acting out “an eye for an eye”
– a home production
performed by  Rebecca and Caleb

For the second time a family member, a seven year old boy, has been in a fight at school. The principal phoned his mother and said her son would bring home a letter. I was there when the son came home and read the letter. His mother was required to respond with a comment, and send it back to the school. She asked my advice. What could she say? Last time she said she was sorry and would work to ensure it wouldn’t happen again.

I talked to the child about what had happened. As before, it was the scenario, “he hit me first then I hit him back.”

I, a little too quickly as it happened, attempted to get to a solution by including the child in a shared problem solving approach. He, a little too quickly and gleefully, suggested that he could be grounded.

When I added a more serious tone about the implications of his actions for his mother as well as himself, he followed in a more serious tone with an apology followed by mutterings about how useless he felt and sentiments like he couldn’t do anything right.

I then tried to pull the conversation back to something I came across in Steven Covey‘s book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, that of the relationship between stimulus (here, someone “being mean” and hitting), and the need to think before responding.

Covey says, “Between stimulus and response is our greatest power – the freedom to choose.” He refers to the word “response-ability” as the ability to choose the response.

I decided I would try and implement a system whereby this boy would be rewarded for being able to stand back and reflect on what had happened, the response/s of the parties involved, his response, or, if he could do it again, the response he could have chosen.

The system sounded good at the time and started to work in practice, in that there was some reflection going on. However, it was difficult for the two of us to sustain these conversations in our otherwise busy and distracted lives.

A more general problem with this kind of approach is that it relies on individuals and families knowing somehow how to choose appropriate and effective responses. If only it were always that simple.

Since writing the first draft of this Blog, there has been some major publicity about violent incidents in New Zealand schools. There is talk, not of how to respond appropriately to the violence and insults involved (much of which seems to be around culture and ethnicity), but of blame (particularly of families), punishment, and stronger measures of control (including having police in schools).

A well-known sociologist C Wright Mills, taught about the need for processes that enabled private troubles to be expressed and handled in appropriate and effective ways as public issues.

At a national level the integration of the private trouble and public issues is difficult, but in an electronically and personally well-connected local village such as I have been proposing, it would be possible.

In such a village, the seven year old boy and his mother could have shared their troubles more widely. They would have soon found their individual problem was one that was shared by others. Engagement in wider reflective village conversations would bring diverse perspectives, experience and knowledge. Relevant academics from an interested and locally-engaged university might also contribute, possibly with some research.

Add the village creatives – writers, filmmakers – and this kind of problem could be built into a locally produced, helpful and engaging, narrative film. Such a film could then be made more widely available, including through the community’s electronic media, for wider applications.

What do you think?

See New Zealand Herald story and comments on the topic What can be done about violence at schools?(8 September 2009).


  1. Bindy says:

    Who wrote “the letter ” .. the principal, the other child, the other child’s parent… ? Is it part of disciplinary procedcure that requires inscription to make the actions and its consequences ‘concrete’? If so, was the mothers repsonse also required to be written? Does this begin to build a trace of actions?

    As you say .. probably more than meets “the eye” for any seven year old and how to make it visible is the challenge for those who care for him in the broadest realm.

  2. Hazel says:

    The letter came from the school (deputy principal I think). There was a space at the end of the letter for the mother of the seven year old boy who had been violent to respond in writing.

    I expect the school’s motive in requesting a response was primarily one of communication, making sure the message as sent from the school was received i.e. describing the behaviour, noting the transgressions against school codes, and describing consequences for the boy (I think it may have been time-out).

    I don’t think the school necessarily expected the mother to respond with a concrete action which could be followed up, but presume they appreciate it if parents show willingness to try and address behaviour issues.

    I don’t have any information about any other letters or other parties.

    My interest in terms of the methodology I have been developing is how many and diverse personal troubles may be addressed in the context of a well-connected village or network locality (one that is equipped to create its own on-going filmed narratives).

    I realize I’ve not gone into detail abut how the involvement of academia and artists and film makers and people in localities would work in this particular case, but I’m hoping this will become more clear in the “brokering solutions” Blog (to be published soon) where I will outline the process in more concrete terms.

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