An Important Lesson for Kids: Life Isn’t Fair

My kids are getting to the age where they are questioning why other kids have something they don’t have or get to do something they can’t do. Part of it is the age. They are still too young to do things they see other people doing, like stay up late or get a big piece of cake. Part of it is the choices we make as parents. Like not letting them stay up past their bed time, or keeping the big piece of cake for myself. Which by law is the right of every dad. It’s true. I’ve never looked it up, but I’m pretty sure its one of the amendments. I think Taft was behind it. Anyway, it has brought up an opportunity to teach am important life lesson – life isn’t fair.

While thinking about this, I realized the way we teach the concept of fairness to kids is contradictory. First we tell them to do things because they need to be fair – share toys, take turns, play nicely, follow the rules. Then, once we’ve pounded that into their heads to the point where they can move on from complaining that their sister is being mean to me to their sister isn’t being fair, we introduce them to cold hard reality that life isn’t actually fair. There are adults who have a hard time grasping this concept, so how can we expect a kid to understand?

Are we doing the wrong thing by trying to instill the need for fairness? I’m not saying that we shouldn’t teach kids to share, take turns, and play nicely, but perhaps we shouldn’t be telling them to do it in the name of fairness. I think we’d be better off teaching them to act in the name of doing it because it is the right thing to do. What seems like simply swapping out one word for another may seem minor enough, but it could actually make a big difference in the development of their character.

If I continuously tell my kids that they need to do things because of a need to be fair, they place an importance on the concept of fairness. A concept that will inevitably be torn down. A sports radio host used to say, “Fair is a place to buy a pig.” True words for both the competitive balance of the Big Ten and life in general. I want my kids to understand what is fair and what is unfair, but I’d rather have them act out of a desire to do what they think is right, not what they think is fair. I’d love to have them embrace the perceived unfairness as a means to overcome a challenge and build character, but that is probably asking too much of kids who are still working on such complex concepts as the indoor voice.

Here I am now in the awkward position of simultaneously telling them that one of them will get the orange plate today and the other will get it tomorrow because that’s fair, and also that they don’t get to have the same toys as other kids because things aren’t always fair. So when it becomes a matter of them getting upset because they can’t do or don’t have something that somebody else does, I shift away from fairness to a concept that they already understand – everybody is different.

I know they firmly understand that concept because Daniel Tiger told them that in someways we are different, but in so many ways we are the same. Of course he did it in a tune that is forever drilled into both their brains and mine and we couldn’t forget it if we tried. Well played Daniel Tiger. But they understand it none the less. They already apply this concept to why somebody is taller, shorter, lighter skinned, darker skinned, or anything else they recognize as different from them. Why not apply it to non-physical traits? Somebody else getting an ice cream sundae while you get a kid sized cone isn’t something that is unfair to you, it’s just that that kid is different. You get a scoop, they get a big sundae. You made a healthy choice, they are one step closer to juvenile diabetes.

So I’m going to throw fair out the window and focus on doing what is right and being ok with everybody being different. I assume there will be a flurry of “Why?” headed my way, but with little kids in the house I get a couple hundred of those a day anyway, so what’s a few hundred more?

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