7. A Circles Activity for Families
A restorative process to reinforce the most
important relationships in our lives
In my most recent posting that described why Connection is the most essential element of Restorative Practices, I concentrated, as I typically do, on processes that we can incorporate in our schools to build tightly-knit communities consisting of strong relationships amongst staff and students. But if social connectedness is a human survival need and is directly related to our overall mental health, then we can also benefit immensely by introducing some restorative practices with our families.
Two years ago, I decided to try a circle process for the first time with my extended family. Our family was gathering over the winter holidays, as is customary. Including aunties, uncles, cousins, and children, about twenty of us gathered at the host family's New Jersey home. I asked family members in advance if they were comfortable trying a "game" that would allow us to have fun and get to know each other better, without providing any other details. People were enthusiastic. I mentioned nothing about restorative practices or circles.
After lunch, while the small children were occupied playing games together on their own, we arranged ourselves in a circle in the living room. We ensured that there were no physical obstructions and that everyone would be able to look the speaker in the eye. In that way, our activity resembled a classroom community-building circle. However, I kept things a bit less formal beyond that resemblance. I didn't establish formal circle guidelines or norms, for example. Rather, to open things up, I said something along these lines:
"Families rarely take time to truly get to know each other. Even though we’ve known each other our whole lives, we likely don’t know the answers to these questions for our family members. The goal is simply to learn new things about each other and to bring ourselves closer together."
I did encourage family members to follow these guidelines:
Be as open as possible and answer as in-depth as possible so we can truly learn about you
Accept any emotion - laughter, discomfort, tears, awkwardness
In the interest of time, please don’t interrupt or ask follow-up questions to the speaker (quick clarifying questions are OK)
A volunteer started the first round and we proceeded in this way:
The first person to volunteer selects a question at random from a bag of paper strips with these questions printed on them.
This person answers the question within some pre-selected amount of time that will ensure that the family can all participate at least once, perhaps one minute.
They then randomly select a question from the bag, read it, and choose who they would like to answer the new question.
That person answers, chooses the next question and person to answer, and so on.
I had an amazing experience, both sharing and listening. The main sense that stood out to me was that I love my extended family and have known the adults for decades, but I don't really know them. Sure, you hear an interesting anecdote from your parents about a childhood experience one day, or your relative shares a story about an impactful life event during a family vacation, but that still only allows you to scratch the surface about who these people really are and what they hold in their hearts.
When an uncle spoke about the advice he would give his younger self, I learned a great deal about his childhood, about my father's childhood, and about things that my uncle values at his current stage in life. I had no idea about any of these things! My mother learned things she never even knew about my younger brother when he spoke about how he had grown professionally and personally through adversity that he had conquered. It's incredible how uplifting it feels to simply listen to the experiences, desires, triumphs, and regrets of those closest to you. As we empathize, we automatically see the person in a new light and feel a new sense of closeness and intimacy.
"I've always felt that it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person. The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar."
-- Chimamanda Adichie
We agreed that we would like to repeat the activity as often as possible. We also acknowledged that it's difficult with babies and small children to look after or with people on different schedules.
Options to Customize the Activity for your Family
This activity can be tailored to any family's needs:
Start by selecting the right questions for your crew. I found some of these questions online and I wrote many myself. Notice that in my list, most of the questions are not too challenging to answer or likely to evoke a traumatic memory.
"What's the most valuable life lesson you have learned"
"Who is someone in this room whom you admire and why?"
"What advice would you give your younger self?"
Some of the questions on my list did involve a bit more risk or vulnerability, such as "What is your greatest fear or worry?" You don't have to include such questions if you don't think your family is ready for that yet. You can also set people up to choose someone who they know would be comfortable answering such a question.
Participants can simply look at the list and choose a question to answer. Or, the family can agree on one question to answer and go around the circle sequentially giving everyone a chance to respond.
Try the activity on your favorite video conferencing app! It works much better than I could have predicted.
If you have a very large family, break people up into groups of 3, 4, or 5 and have them try the activity that way. People may be more comfortable in smaller groups.
Have fun and happy bonding!
Hemanth Venkataraman aka Mister V
I am a school culture consultant who guides educators to effectively implement restorative practices in order to transform school culture and maximize educational outcomes for all students.