All I need to know about parenting, I’ve learned in my criminal justice career

Kim blog photoHappy summer! As I get ready to go on vacation and summer break with my awesome daughter Claire, I can’t help but think about parenting. I love being a parent. Honestly, I was a little surprised by how natural it felt when I became one, and it remains so to this day. But don’t mistake natural for easy. Parenting is not easy.

Some of the best parenting lessons I’ve learned are actually those I’ve taken from studying and teaching best practices in criminal justice reform. Sound funny? But think about it. A lot of parenting is about teaching children to make good choices and helping them change bad behaviors. As a parent, you teach your kids how to problem solve, be polite, and respect social norms, and you also teach them that choices have consequences.

One of the biggest influences on my parenting comes from my work in criminal justice. Take, for instance, a training session I attended on the forensic interviewing of child victims. Just back from maternity leave, I was co-hosting a technology conference with the ABA on how to use closed-circuit televising for child victims (CCTV). This session was eye-opening for me. I’d never thought before about how differently children perceive time from adults or how they respond to leading questions because they want to please. I’ve drawn on what I learned in that CCTV training hundreds of times over the last 11 years. For instance, the session taught me that to communicate effectively with a child, you have to understand what’s age appropriate and apply that knowledge to the way you ask a child a question. I learned that when seeking information from children, you should limit your questions to “who, what, where…” Equally important, you also have to remember this when setting your expectations about the responses you’ll receive. I’m grateful that I learned the term “age-appropriate” so early in my parenting, and I now see the positive effects it’s had on my daughter. I’ve even heard her use the term with her friends! Thank you, CCTV.

Another well-respected criminal justice theory I’ve used for parenting is swift, certain, and fair, a theory I learned at the Department of Justice that originated with the HOPE project that’s now a model across the US. Research shows that children are more likely to develop good behaviors, just as clients are more likely comply with orders, when the consequences of bad behaviors are known and imposed within a few hours to a few days. This means don’t make a threat to your children, such as you’re going to leave a restaurant if they don’t change their behavior, unless you’re truly willing to pick up and leave, just as you shouldn’t let a client sit incarcerated for weeks before seeing her attorney or a judge. Lack of follow through or a long lapse in time between the offense and the consequence will result in negative outcomes.

As I move into parenting a tween, I hope my reward for all the hard work I put in over the last 11 years will be smooth sailing in the teenage years. Yes, I’m serious. All the practices and theories listed above are a great guide and work when implemented correctly. That said, let’s remember that the most important thing in parenting—and, I believe, also the most important thing in working in the criminal justice system—is love.

Kim Ball is the director of the Justice Programs Office. 

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