Fairness: What Does it Really Mean?

Fairness: What Does it Really Mean?
By Debra Cardash

“It’s not fair!”  If we had a dollar for every time a child said this phrase, we would all be millionaires.  A working definition of fairness and clear steps to achieve fairness will foster our children’s growth – so this article will focus on how to define fairness, conceive of ownership, distinguish “nice” from “fair” and achieve fair outcomes.

“Fair” does not mean “equal,” even though equal opportunity for equal benefit is central to its meaning.  Fairness does not mean that everybody gets what they want.  Rather it means that everybody in the group has an equal opportunity to benefit.  A classroom teacher may offer computer time only for students who have completed their work.  That’s fair, because everyone has the opportunity to finish their work.  It would not be fair if the teacher only offered computer time to right-handed students.

At home, parents can start early on by helping children share toys or computer time, divide snacks, and take turns setting the table.  The ultimate goal is for children to successfully resolve conflicts by themselves.  There are plenty of strategies that work in a variety of settings if the kids have the tools.  Learning how to use strategies in the kitchen, on the playground, and in the classroom turns these conflicts into opportunities for middos (growth in personal character).

Ownership is another important part of fairness.  Everybody has the right to their property.  It’s important to help our children understand different types of ownership – by individuals, by the family, by the community.  A helpful idea is to talk about what toys a child does not want to share before friends come over, or discussing sharing when deciding whether to bring toys to school.  Children also need to know that if they lend out all of their pencils, they won’t be able to write.

It’s not fair to our children if they give away all their snacks and end up hungry.  If a food-deprived classmate needs an extra snack, we can encourage our child to pack an additional snack (and we can discreetly advise the teacher of the situation).  By soliciting children’s opinions and ideas, we help them devise options to solve problems.

It’s a myth that fair and “nice” are interchangeable.  Fair does not mean “nice,” and ownership rules always apply.  Sara does not have to share her snack just because Malky wants some.  However, Sara may not bring birthday treats only for the children in class whom she likes.  Your neighbor does not have to give you her empty house for Pesach, even though you gave her your house for Succos three years in a row!  This is a great set-up for the yetzer hara (the inclination to do evil) to ensnare us or for us to model how to be dan lechaf zchus (to give the benefit of the doubt).

It’s my choice.  Will I choose to demean my neighbor and discuss how selfish she is over our family dinner, or will I say out loud that our neighbors must have a very good reason for saying no, and that reason is none of my business?

Here are a few tips to help children and ourselves figure out fair solutions for common conflicts, remembering that good planning can prevent them:

  • Review the rules of the game before playing.  It is not fair to ask for a do-over because you lost.
  • Good sportsmanship counts (nobody, especially your mother, likes whining).
  • Honest mistakes happen often.

Four questions to help children figure out whether an option is fair:

  1. The ownership question:  who has a right to it? (school ball verses Yoni’s ball)
  2. If everyone has a right to it, does everybody have an equal opportunity?  What if there is not enough to go around?
  3. Has the group agreed on what to do?
  4. Would I take what I’m suggesting in reverse – does the shoe fit on the other foot?  Fairness implies that if an outcome were reversed, it would be as fair.

As children age, they understand that fair comes in many different shades of grey. Not every girl will get the part of her dreams in Erev Shira (the community songfest), every boy does not make it into the top shiur (study group), and not everyone wins the grand prize at the Chinese auction.  Children also start to notice nuances and inconsistencies about how decisions get made.

We need to overcome our urge to be cynical or inconsistent, because we are their role models.  It’s important that they know Hashem gives everybody what they need, including the challenges that they’re facing right now.

I sometimes have to remind myself that I am not the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and therefore I do not adjudicate fairness for schools, peers, neighbors, and extended family.  The only person I’m in charge of is me.  To achieve personal responsibility, our children need the gift of empowerment and confidence in their ability to control their own behavior and choices.  It is only fair.

Debbie Cardash, LCSW is the Coordinator for Social Work Services at REACH (Resources for Educational Achievement, Collaboration, and Health)

Photo courtesy of Jason. Talbrias via Flickr.