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I Managed To Explain To My 9-Year-Old Why Life Is Unfair, But It Got A Little Weird


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What are the hardest yet most important concepts to explain to children correctly?

Ideals masquerading as laws.

This is one that many adults struggle with, so explaining them to kids is extremely difficult but incredibly important. Let’s taking an easy one: Fairness.

My son is 9 years old, but he’s always been obsessed with fairness. If his sister gets something, he needs to get the same thing or close enough to balance the scales. But it’s like he’s afraid he’s going to miss out on something.

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I told him his obsession with getting the same as his 5-year-old sister is not just ludicrous, but it will drive him nuts. Actually, it will drive him to entitlement, which will drive me nuts, but that’s too difficult a concept.

So I told him that fairness doesn’t exist. And that sparked a discussion, where he tried to convince me fairness did exist.

Yes, well, of course it exists, but not like gravity. It’s a concept masquerading as a law, but if you go down to the essence, fairness is an ideal. Something to strive for, but not something that would be there if everybody stopped striving. Gravity exists, whether we believe in it or not, you cannot disprove gravity. But I can easily disprove fairness. Most of life is ‘unfair’, that is, it doesn’t adhere to your ideal masquerading as a law of nature.

You don’t strive to improve gravity. Gravity is. Fairness might become.

So why does everybody insist on being treated fairly, when fairness does not exist?

Because people need to strive for something bigger than themselves. They want to improve. They want life to improve. So they need to believe in ideals and believe this ideals exist outside their minds. And they do. They exist in our collective consciousness. That makes them real. But they still exist as an ideal, a concept. Not a law unto themselves, like gravity.

So, should I disregard fairness?

Of course not. It’s a noble goal to strive for fairness for all. But it’s the striving that makes it important, not the concept itself. You don’t strive to improve gravity. Gravity is. Fairness might become. You might become truly fair. Fairness is foolishness and wisdom at the same time.

Like in the parable in the Bible of King Solomon and the women bickering about a baby. Both women want to be treated fairly, so Solomon tricks them. Fairness would be splitting something in half so both parties can enjoy half, but you cannot split a baby in half. So when Solomon, in his wisdom, threatens to be fair and hack the baby in 2 equal halves, one of the women wants his fairness, while the other woman tells Solomon to not hurt the baby but give her to the other woman. Because in her love for her child, she prefers the child growing up with someone who is not his mother to not growing up at all. And that convinces Solomon that she’s the real mother, not the woman who would gladly allow a baby to be slaughtered for fairness. (1 Kings 3:16-28)

Some things can be shared easily. You can just split it right in the middle. A cookie, a candy bar, a heap of Lego blocks.

I told him his obsession with getting the same as his 5-year-old sister is not just ludicrous, but it will drive him nuts.

Even parental attention can be split right down the middle. I could just devote 10 whole minutes on him, and 10 whole minutes on his sister. But what if he needs 12 minutes and his sister is fine with 5, is it fair to not give each an equal part, but to base your decision to who needs what and when and how? If his sister wants an apple to school and he wants a kiwifruit, which costs about twice what an apple costs, should I give him half a kiwifruit so his sister wouldn’t need to suffer the unfairness of not getting a piece of fruit of equal value? Or should I just give her the piece of fruit she wants and him the piece of fruit he wants without checking the value of the fruit? What is fair? What is wise?

And so I managed to get him to reconsider his stance on fairness.

Which is totally unfair, because I have a 40-year advantage in debating. I hope that by the time he figures out that unfairness, he’s old enough not to consider me a bad parent for manipulating him into making him think about the choices he eventually has to make.

Martyn V. Halm is a fiction writer and professional confabulator. You can read more from Quora below: