In January 1995, Tariq Khamisa was 20 years old. Tony Hicks was 14. Khamisa, a college student, was working his shift delivering pizza the night Hicks’s gang tried to rob him. According to The San Diego Union-Tribune, when the gang leader handed Hicks a gun and told him to shoot, he did. Khamisa died. Hicks was tried as an adult and ultimately received a sentence of 25 years to life in prison.
Justice seemed to have prevailed—a severe punishment for a horrendous crime—but in reality, it still wasn’t enough to fill the emptiness felt by each of the families. Tariq’s father, Azim Khamisa, asked to meet Ples Felix, Hicks’s grandfather and guardian. When they met, Felix vowed to do anything he could to help the family. Incredibly, Azim Khamisa went on to forgive Hicks, whom he eventually visited in prison in 2000. Explaining that he “saw tragedy on both sides of the gun that day,” he launched the Tariq Khamisa Foundation (TKF), and a month later, asked Felix to join him.
Since November 1995, the two have been sharing their story, determined to stop the cycle of youth violence and inspire a spirit of compassion and peace building. Their educational organization, based in San Diego County, has worked to establish restorative practices—a framework for strengthening social connections—in communities. With restorative practices, schools and parents manage behavioral issues through principles of accountability, compassion, forgiveness, and peacemaking, as opposed to punishment for punishment’s sake.
The TKF organization has reached 600,000 (and counting) young people through its Peacemaker Assemblies, small-group workshops, and one-on-one mentorships—and close to 2 million if you consider its virtual events.
More recently, TKF has expanded its reach, with its curriculum being incorporated into schools in Pennsylvania and Colorado. They’ve also created training programs for educators so they, too, can feel empowered to promote restorative practices and forgiveness in their community. What’s more, with funding from the GGSC’s Raising Caring, Courageous Kids initiative, TKF is also bringing workshops to parents to foster stronger family relationships and help children learn to navigate conflict and forgiveness early on in life.
Punishment vs. restorative practices
Tit for tat. An eye for an eye. Just deserts. The notion of revenge and punishment pervades our language, and colors how our criminal justice system, workplaces, schools, and personal relationships respond to a violation of code, rules, or laws. If you rob a store, you get thrown in prison. If you cheat on an exam, you get suspended at school—and grounded big-time at home. The practice is an expedient way (so the thinking goes) to right wrongs and keep the peace.
But the truth is, while making people “pay” for their behavior may seem justified, it’s not enough to create safer communities and strengthen the relationships of the people who live in them. Rules and laws continue to get broken. Feelings of hurt and rage don’t go away. Rules and laws get broken again.
By partnering with communities to create a supportive and restorative environment, TKF tries to put an end to this assembly-line mentality. Some of the communities they serve struggle with tough circumstances, like poverty, gang violence, and incarcerated family members, while some are more affluent. Each has its own set of challenges, but the lesson is the same: By learning to be empathic and mindful of others’ feelings, by taking responsibility for transgressions and making amends for them, and by forgiving others and creating a path toward peace, kids develop the tools they need to bring more joy into their life.
“The roots of restorative practices have evolved from Indigenous people, and it has always addressed how wrongdoers can make amends and how those wronged can find closure and both can move forward,” points out Tasreen Khamisa, Tariq’s sister, who joined the organization in 1998 and is now the executive director. “What makes TKF unique is our emphasis on forgiveness and healing,” she says.
Restorative practices don’t mean there are no consequences for transgressions. There are. But the emphasis is on learning from our experience—owning up to the transgression, and doing what needs to be done to make it right for the wronged party. “It’s second chances and making better choices,” says Tasreen Khasima. “The punitive mindset doesn’t allow for this.”
So, instead of, say, being suspended, students meet with a TKF-trained counselor or teacher. The process allows the transgressor and the wronged person to process their actions and work toward restoring their relationship. But, adds Tammy Cook, a TKF-trained elementary school counselor, “there’s also something restorative about bringing people back into the environment, so they can bounce back instead of being shunned.”
In Cook’s elementary school in Newtown, Pennsylvania, for example, teachers had become aware that three sixth-grade boys were repeatedly shaming a classmate with learning needs by yelling math problems at him that they knew he couldn’t solve.
Because all the kids take classes rooted in restorative practices and the TKF curriculum, they were already familiar with the concepts and terms. So Cook met with them and asked, “If you’re trying to walk through your day without causing harm, where do you think you went wrong?” During the conversation, they pointed out where they veered off-path, how they felt, and how the other child might have felt. “I didn’t stop and think,” was a common response. They also explained what they’d do differently.
“‘This is what I’d do differently’ is like a contract,” explains Cook. For the part of the boy who was teased, he told his teacher he simply wanted them to stop. In the end, one boy wrote an apology to the classmate they teased; the other approached him, apologized, and said, “I messed up.” The last—who’s still working on his behavior—decided simply to leave that student alone. The boys (who were friends to begin with) became friends again.
These are small but important triumphs. While the norm is to hear kids say, “It’s not my fault!” or “I didn’t do it!” she’s hearing more, “I messed up. How do I make it right?” Kids are learning to take ownership of their actions and what it means. “And that’s powerful,” says Cook.
How to foster forgiveness and restorative practices at home
The techniques used to promote peace in school also apply to the home environment, which is why TKF’s restorative parenting workshops were such a natural way for the organization to grow. In fact, it was the families themselves who prompted it—when children started coming home saying things like “What about people’s feelings?,” parents were intrigued and wanted to learn more.
With the new workshops, TKF can offer a more holistic approach—exposing parents to the same language of restoration taught through the program at school—with deeper lessons on forgiveness, building a child’s resilience, and more. Through six sessions, the workshops give parents the tools they need to discipline through teaching, not punishment, and to move forward on divisive family issues where they might feel stuck. For instance, parents learn about how to use feeling-based statements (“I feel X when you do Y”) when expressing displeasure with a child’s actions, instead of shaming or blaming them; they learn to stop and breathe and think positively about their child; and they learn how to form a “family circle,” where one member speaks at a time and everyone listens from the heart.
A range of activities provide a deeper understanding of the tenets being taught. One exercise asks parents to think through how they currently might respond to a difficult problem—such as their child getting into a fight in school—and then assess whether it’s actually effective for themselves and for their child. They then compare that to what a restorative response might look like, in which the parent puts themselves into a calm, thoughtful space, listens to the child, processes the child’s feelings, shares their own feelings, and discusses how to make things right.
One parent found the mindfulness techniques especially helpful with tough situations with the kids at home. “I’m more aware of and caring about their feelings and thoughts, and they are coming to me more to talk,” the workshop participant said in a program evaluation.
The program never shames parents for what they’re doing wrong but, rather, approaches each lesson from a place of respect and cultural humility. “We meet them where they are,” explains Tasreen Khamisa. The aim is to create a safe space within the home, so that both children and adults feel heard, understood, and valued.
This spirit of peace, restoration, and forgiveness is something all families can work toward, even when children are small. Research out of the University of Virginia suggests that kids as young as four or five are capable of forgiving others, to varying degrees. Of course, it takes some cognitive maturity to understand real forgiveness, but as Everett Worthington, Jr., a leading researcher on forgiveness, explains, “you can create a structure that kids can build onto when they get older.”
To start, parents can teach by example. Be a model of forgiveness, and of the positive emotions (empathy, sympathy, compassion) that can replace hurt and anger when a wrong arises. If a sales clerk is unhelpful, for instance, avoid arguing, and be understanding while also calmly explaining what your needs are.
Children as young as six begin understanding that there’s a cause and effect to people’s actions, says University of Wisconsin–Madison psychologist Robert Enright. By teaching children the concepts of kindness, respect, generosity, and love through picture books and conversation, you can lay the foundation to a deeper understanding of forgiveness.
Of course, if your child is old enough and an issue arises, discuss the option of forgiveness between the wrongdoing child and the wronged. Ask about how the situation made them feel and what a path forward might look like.
When a child misbehaves, figure out why it happened. “The assumption is ‘you made a mistake because you didn’t know the right way,’” says Kendall Cotton Bronk, TKF’s scientific advisor and a professor of psychology at Claremont Graduate University in California. “So the consequence is not simply sending kids to their room, but working with them to get to the root of the problem and address it.”
And don’t forget to remind your child about their strengths. “Sometimes we’re so focused on what they’re doing wrong, we forget to point out their strengths,” says Tasreen Khamisa. This is important because confidence—an important quality that fosters resilience—comes from knowing what our strengths are, or realizing we even possess them. When one TKF workshop participant started talking to her kids about their strengths and using a more positive approach, arguments at home became less frequent. “I often got frustrated and would fuss or just get mad a lot,” the parent said in a program evaluation, but now the family have become better listeners, and the kids more respectful. “I sometimes see my kids being more positive with each other and about themselves.”
Why kids need restoration and forgiveness
TKF’s curriculum grew out of a tragic event and extraordinary intuition, but its concepts of restoration and forgiveness are grounded in science. Recent studies on restorative practices in schools show promise. Evidence is growing that when done right, restorative practices can improve relationships between adolescent students in school and between the students and their teachers; they can also improve the perceived safety of the school, as well as the behavior of its individual students, reducing the need for individual actions.
By emphasizing forgiveness and healing in its approach to restorative practices, TKF gives kids even greater support to be their best selves. As a study by Enright suggests, children as young as six are able to significantly lower their levels of anger through lessons in forgiveness. Additional research with youth has shown that working toward a more forgiving attitude can, depending on the age and situation, also help enhance emotional health, lower levels of depression, decrease aggression and delinquency, and even improve academic performance.
For Tasreen Khamisa, forgiving Tony took her a little longer than her father. “I was not there when he was there,” she explained. “And I think that’s OK. Forgiveness is a personal journey.” She likes to think of forgiveness as a “peeling of layers.” You need to peel away the anger, and then peel away the things that keep you from empathizing with the person who wronged you. It took her 20 years to peel off that final layer—that layer that kept her from meeting Tony. But once she did, she says, “We had an instant connection. We were brought together through that tragedy, and we found strength and support.”