"Life Isn't Fair": A Vital Childhood Lesson?

"Life Isn't Fair": A Vital Childhood Lesson?
By James Mullan
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“Being fair” is a principle instilled from the earliest point of a child’s life. Taking turns; sharing equipment is all part of being fair, as is dividing the cake into equal pieces, or buying everyone the same number of ice-cream scoops. We teach children not to snatch things from others, or hurt them, as this is “not fair". These things, we feel, are what make us civilized and courteous; they are the embodiment of kindness towards others and evidence of good manners. Or are they? When children are desperate to do something, but have to wait, we reassure them that “it will be your turn soon;” indeed, as far as it is in our – and other parents’ power – we will ensure that they get “a turn". Is this good for our children – their blind reliance on things being fair? Is this not setting them up for disappointment and failure at some point down the line? School admission tests do not allocate places in sought after schools based on “fair,” it is on test and academic results, not effort. Had a bad day, did much worse than usual? Parents can do little about it. Turned up late for an important appointment, or forgot something? “Not fair” will make no difference at all. Someone told tales and your child got punished unjustly: this is blatantly unfair – it may have been made in error - but it is still unfair. Is it however right to march into the school and tell the teacher how “unfair” this was? If your child was left out of a select party and they are upset about this, is the best response to march over to the parents demanding an explanation? If there is an election at school and your child came in close second, is it alright to go into school to try to “negotiate” on behalf of your child? Consider where this leaves your child: It creates a false expectation that the world is organised on the premise of “fair play” and things will work out fairly in the end. Except they will not. The world is not fair and never was. The idea of “fair play,” a noble and admirable concept, first mentioned in the play King John, by Shakespeare, is often used in a sporting context. It is not, unfortunately, a “rule” the world is ordered by. In sports it serves to ensure that all participants abide by the rules and the generous handshake offered by the winner to his/her opponent at the end of a game, say in tennis or golf, is a beautiful example of both parties honouring this. “Fair” is a fine, democratic principle; the ultimate in equal rights, as well as in abiding by rules that are known and accepted by all, but it is not how the world operates. Powerful and wealthy organisations do not think along those lines - whether we like it or not. To ignore this fact would be foolish. To encourage our children to believe in “fairness” under these circumstances would be worse. The times when our children encounter blatant injustice are the times to talk to them about the world and justice. Take time to explain to them that: • sadly bad things happen to good people. That life is not fair, however much we would all like it to be. • while it may hurt – especially their sense of justice and pride – that they have been told off for something they had not done, this is not going to be the last time this will happen. Explain that this was bad luck, not a nice experience perhaps, but not a terrible one either. (This is not to say that you should not mention the incident to the teacher at the next parent’s evening, if you feel strongly about it. Please note: if this appears to be a pattern there may be some bullying going on.) • instead talk about children unfortunate enough to be living in a war zone or being involved in an accident. Storming in “to have a word” would imply to them that you have “the power” to reverse things; that the culprit will “get into trouble.” This is not what you want them to think or count on. • that it is important that they try to be just and considerate in their dealings with others, but that many things are not going to work that way. A pop star with a bit of talent and loads of good luck maybe fabulously rich; a little kid elsewhere on the planet who works ridiculously hard to help his family does not even get three meals a day. Is it not better for children to develop some resilience in preparation for facing the inevitable difficulties in life, than to “win” every battle – even if they are technically right? This does not mean that they should weakly step down in the face of blatant injustice, just that they learn to choose issues worth arguing about and others that they may need to live with. Children everywhere, but in particular those growing up in affluent or well-educated families, expect that if they work hard things will “work out” for them. If, God forbid, they lose their jobs or do not get a promotion, they crumble. They do not expect this or know how to deal with it. Anticipating hiccups and learning how to overcome them is vital when preparing children for the challenges of working life. It is not too early to start when the first disappointment occurs in the classroom, on the playground or at home. For the children who expect everything because they are somehow entitled to it: the good job, the fast car, the nice house; children, who grow up with this attitude because whenever things did not work out for them, their parents “fixed it” – intervened when the desired football captain selection did not go their way, or “talked to the school” when they did not get in, life is even harder. Try not to build expectations in your child, that life will not necessarily live up to.

Agnes Holly, BA English and German; MA Comparative Literature; Hornsby Dipl Special Educational Needs. Agnes has more than 25 years' teaching experience in various roles ranging from university to nursery teaching, in addition to on-going work bringing up 5 children.


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