The Justice Gatekeepers for our Children

That is not fair!” Any parent or teacher knows how early in children’s lives this notion drives human behavior, motivation, and belonging. When children feel they are treated fairly, they develop a sense of safety and predictability, and find reason to comply with rules and legitimize authorities. Parents and teachers are justice gatekeepers in children’s lives. How they handle conflict and discipline shapes children’s expectations of justice in other settings.

Most children and adolescents do not have direct contact with legal authorities, such as police or judges. However, one of the ways they build their perspectives is based on the justice they have grown to expect from closer authorities. Data from a diverse group of 680 Brazilian adolescents revealed that parents’ justice at home and their evaluations of school fairness predicted how adolescents perceived their personal access to justice and the justice of the world at large. Furthermore, adolescents’ world views of justice predicted how much they legitimized the law and avoided delinquent behaviors the following year.

It is easy to think about justice as simply getting what you deserve, but that bypasses one of the more powerful cognitions of justice – the process of justice. Procedural justice considers the respect, neutrality, voice, and fairness of the authority’s actions. A child may not agree that she should be disciplined for her dishonesty, but if the parent is respectful, explains the rules, and listens to the child, she is more likely to continue respecting her parents’ authority, despite her frustration. The point is not to be lenient, but to emerge on the other side with your child’s respect so that, even when consequences are firm, the child experiences the safety and predictability of justice.

“How parents and teachers handle conflict and discipline shapes children’s expectations of justice in other settings.”

It is vital that children experience justice and come to expect it. Harsh punishments or rules without explanation do not feel fair, and chip away at the legitimacy youth attribute to authorities at large – and that illegitimacy makes them vulnerable to future delinquency.

When you find out your child has done something wrong, do you:

  • Listen to their side of the story?
  • Talk to them politely?
  • Explain why you are disciplining them?

Youth should be given the chance to articulate their perspective and practice civil dialogue in common daily scenarios. When children are consistently given a chance to explain their perspective and be respected by the authorities they know, they will anticipate and even demand to be given the same rights in society.

The world is not a fair place, and failing to expose injustice underprepares children at best, and leads them to blame the victims or be the victims at worst. The goal is not to have children believe the world is fair, but is to make their lives fair so they can be equipped with the courage to engage in positive civic behaviors and avoid fatalistic mindsets.

“We want to raise children to speak up and expect to be heard and understood.”

We want to raise children who are equipped for the challenges of the world. Doing so begins by providing a safe haven at home and at school, where they can learn to connect their actions to outcomes and to be outraged by, not cynical of, injustice. We want them to have good reasons to legitimize their authorities. We want to raise children to speak up and expect to be heard and understood. We must model for them the kind of justice we want them to demand from society.

Header photo: MTSOfan. Creative Commons. 

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