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What is fair? Preparing kids for the cruel world.

Paul Banas
Author Paul Banas
Submitted 06-12-2011

I just had to pull the kids apart during an argument over lunch. “It’s not fair,” complained my son, now 7 years old.

Where did they get this idea of fairness in life and how and when do we disabuse them of the notion that some omniscient justice will always be available to them?

I now realize that nursery school is all about instilling this idea of fairness in little kids. In our attempts to socialize them, we constantly affirm the idea of each person having “their turn.” To keep control of the pre-school masses, it’s important for them to see some structure in the way things work, and that there is hope for their own satisfaction if they just wait their turn.

When they get to elementary school, however, perhaps by first grade, they quickly see on the playground, away from the scrutiny of the all beneficent adults, that fairness doesn’t always rule the day. But at home, they cling to this idea for longer, perhaps because moms and dads are usually acutely aware of special treatment between siblings. King Solomon-like, we’re often put in the role of the final decision-maker.

At some point though, along with the hard truth about Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, parents have to tell kids about the noble ideal of justice. We try to believe in it, we strive for it, but we can’t survive without some doubt about it. Without turning our kids into cynical little ten year olds, we have to slowly introduce the real facts: cheaters often win, bad things some times happen to good people, and that the “rules of the game” are a bit different than the ones we see while wearing rose-colored glasses.

The trick for us dads is to model positive behavior on our fundamental ideals such as honesty, fairness, peace, and equality, while preparing our kids to someday read the front page of the newspaper and not be shocked when they learn of the external world. Like most dads, I parse out information on a need to know basis to my 7 and 11 year olds, trying to avoid exposure to things they don’t need to see before their time.

I’m interested in how other dads see this challenge? Do you blurt out “There is NO Santa,” to expose them to hard truths? How do you prepare them for white lies, road rage, or discrimination? Let us know in the comments below.