Dear Dave

Friday 12 December 2008

The parable of the sweets and the scooter

Dear Dave,

I eventually managed to get the kids to stop complaining about their stolen chocolate Santa by threatening to feed them canned peas if they didn't keep quiet. Nevertheless, it was only a couple of days before we found ourselves in another discussion of equality and social justice.

I once heard a talk by a guy who thought children have an innate sense of fairness. He reckoned this is obvious because they're always saying, 'It's not fair!' at any given opportunity.

Even at the time, I felt this was a somewhat misguided observation. Now, however, having accumulated over eight years experience as a housedad, I can confirm that it's crazier than giving a hyper-active toddler a drumkit.

'It's not fair!' can usually be translated as, 'I'm not getting as big a cut as I expected!' Occasionally, from the mouth of a more enlightened child, it can mean, 'I'm not getting as big a cut as I expected and my friend/sibling/hamster/cuddly toy isn't either!' It certainly doesn't mean, 'Hang on! This isn't entirely equitable. I think I might have a couple of biscuits more than my share...'

This is only to be expected, though. Even putting self-interest aside, 'fair' isn't a simple concept. It's something pretty hard to determine and something we have to learn.

'From each according to their ability, to each according to their need,' could be the definition of fair, for instance. Many would argue, however, that in general, 'From each according to their ability, to each according to what they've contributed,' is actually 'fairer'. Then again, plenty of situations essentially come down to, 'Let's divide the spoils equally and split the bill.'

More than that, it's possible for individual people to hold all these views at the same time. Sometimes about the same thing. The fairest solution to any given situation isn't necessarily straightforward. This makes instilling a sense of fairness in children more difficult than it first seems.

Lewis is definitely struggling with the concept at the moment.

Last week, the whole school went to see a pantomime. At the end of it, the cast threw sweets into the audience. Lewis didn't manage to get any but Fraser happily showed one off in the playground at the end of the day. As he unwrapped it, though, he admitted that he'd had one earlier.

Lewis immediately demanded Fraser hand over the sweet he was about to eat. Since Fraser had already had one, Lewis felt natural justice demanded Fraser give the other one to his brother. One each was only fair after all.

Well, in some sense... I didn't know what Fraser had had to go through to get the sweets. Fighting his way out of a scrum of screaming, excitable children was a distinct possibility. At the very least, he'd had to do some crawling around in the dark. There'd probably been plenty of luck involved but he deserved some reward for his efforts. Besides that, Marie had been at the pantomime and hadn't managed to grab a sweet either. Lewis had no more claim to Fraser's loot than she did.

Fraser hurriedly piped up that he'd had three sweets initially but given one to the child next to him at the pantomime. This didn't exactly appease Lewis. Nonetheless, it considerably surpassed my expectations of Fraser's generosity and put me firmly on his side. I decided to deflect Lewis from the issue.

"You know that boy who was asking for a go on your scooter ten minutes ago?" I said. (Lewis comes out before Fraser and we loiter in the playground for twenty minutes.)

"Yes," said Lewis.

"Did you give him a shot?"


"Then why should Fraser give you his sweet that he's never going to get back, if you're not prepared to give someone else a quick go on your scooter?"

Lewis hugged his scooter jealously. "He said he has his own scooter at home. And a bike. He could have brought them."

"Uh-huh..." I muttered, shaking my head. Lewis couldn't see the connection and I knew that pressing it further would only lead to us talking round in circles. Luckily, Fraser had had the good sense to pop the sweet in his mouth by then, so the point was moot. We headed home, Lewis grumbling as we went...

I think I've still got plenty of work to do with the whole social justice concept.

Maybe I should start with teaching the kids about providing for the elderly... and parents. Particularly elderly parents. Elderly parents deserve nice nursing homes.

After everything they've had to put up with it, it seems only fair...

Yours in a woman's world,


1 comment:

Mockingbird said...

And I am still crying with laughter at the whole social justice thing....