Not fair!

by Kristin on March 26, 2010

in Love, family & community

Photo by Robert S. Donovan

Being the youngest of three sisters isn’t easy. Little S has watched her big sisters get iPods and cell phones. She watches as they bike off together to the library or bakery for a treat. She sees them earning and saving money they confidently access and spend as they wish. She watches them do things like play sports and instruments in, what seems to S, an effortless fashion. She doesn’t like that they can bike faster, run faster and will always grow up faster than her.

S also plays the family baby card well, though, when she wants to. She is the cuddly cute one who at nine still loves to hold her parents’ hands and snuggle in with her biggest sister while they watch a movie. But she knows she is so much more than the baby, so that role only makes her feel better for so long.

S has so many bigger-kid ideas, thoughts, and plans—and they’re all her own, not borrowed from any big sister. She loves acting, her skateboard and her pet bearded dragon. She made robot Valentines for her class, and is planning a Greek gods and goddesses birthday party. She’s full-to-the-brim with compassion—she got it into her head last year to save money to buy a flock of chicks for a third world family through Heifer International, and tells us she wants to go into the Peace Corps after college. Her big sisters value and admire all of these endeavors, but they solely belong to S. She’s her own person.

What does “fair” really look like?

In the end, I think S doesn’t really want what her sisters have. She wants the world to feel fair. As long as it feels fair, it doesn’t actually have to be fair. The possibility of fairness—the potential—is enough.

Like good parents, Jason and I try to show our kids that the world isn’t about what’s fair. Yes, we hope it can be more about what’s compassionate and kind and just, but those things don’t always add up to “fair.” Several of Jesus’ parables are great examples of that, from the Prodigal Son (Luke 15) to the man who hired workers for his vineyard (Matthew 20).

Part of the problem is that “fair” isn’t really as clear-cut and scientific as we’d like it to be. We try to demonstrate this to our kids in numerous ways. Sometimes it’s all about being old enough to handle a responsibility, but there are burdens that go with privileges: “Yes, Q is allowed to walk the dog by herself, but it’s not just a privilege, it’s also a job she’s responsible for. Sometimes I ask her to do it when she would much rather sit on the sofa and read.”

Other times it’s more about an individual characteristic or circumstance that has little to do with age: “Your sister falls apart when she doesn’t get enough sleep, so we are more strict about her bedtime than we are about yours, the little sister. You fall apart when your blood sugar is jumping all over the place, so we are more strict about what you eat than we are about what your sisters eat.”

But still, the words slip out of her mouth on a regular basis: “It’s not fair!”

A birthday gift that demonstrates how the world sometimes works

S turns 10 on Sunday. Yes, my baby hits double digits! And although she will always be the youngest sister, no matter how old she gets, Jason and I realized we have the perfect metaphor for how “fairness” sometimes looks (if there is such a thing at all).

As each of our girls has turned 10, we’ve given them their first iPod. H got hers in 2006, and Q and S were SO jealous. H had something they weren’t old enough to have. It was a first generation iPod nano, with a basic 1 GB hard drive and small black and white screen. It plays music.

Q got hers in 2008. It is also an iPod nano, but 3rd generation—its base capacity is 4GB, and it plays full-color video in addition to music. Both S and H were jealous.

As I sit here writing, I’m waiting for a FedEx truck to deliver S’s birthday iPod nano. It is 5th generation. The smallest hard drive capacity you can get is 8 GB. It plays music and video, plus it has a camera and microphone for recording short videos.

Yes, there will definitely be a couple of big girls in the house who will claim it “isn’t fair!”

To which their wise parents will seamlessly respond, “But what is fair, exactly?”

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  • Lorna

    Completely different context, but at a conference I attended last week I was in a session on an open source integrated library system. One thing the speaker said was “We are not on Planet Fair. If you want something badly enough, you’ll pay for the development costs. After that, everyone who let you go first will get what you developed for free.” In your case S gets “more” than H or Q, but again, “We are not on Planet Fair”! Think I’m going to save that line & pull it out often!

  • Meredith

    How perfectly I can relate to S, as the youngest child myself! Everything wasn’t fair, in my opinion, since my brothers and sister got to do everything first. So perhaps some perspective? Looking back now, I can see how much more lenient my parents were with me and how much more I got away with when compared to my siblings. And, in some respects, because I had my parents to myself once the older siblings left the house for college and beyond, I think I have a closer (albeit different) relationship with my parents than my siblings do. I’m sure there’s plenty they would say is “not fair” too!

  • Meagan Francis

    I love this. I am always telling my kids that fair isn’t about getting the exact same things at the exact same times. In fact, fair might even mean you never get as much as your older sibling got or your younger sibling may be heaped with gadgets that didn’t even exist when you were her age. Fair, as you point out, is more complex than tit for tat. Each kid has different needs and is being brought up by slightly-different parents with slightly-different amounts of time, money, or energy, and in different times. It’s just not possible to be 100% fair.

    Anyway, I think it’s not our job to make things fair, because life isn’t fair. We can only meet their needs the best we can and equip them to deal with all of life’s little inequities. And maybe be a little more tuned-in to life’s BIG inequities, and how they can be a part of the solution.

  • Jennifer

    Suck it, big sisters! Sometimes being the baby rocks. Of course, I’m not the baby so I wouldn’t know. Life is never fair for the middle child. Ever. Ever. *stomps foot*

    On a serious note, I like that you know each of your kids, and that they “know” each other. Different people have different needs. Fair doesn’t mean equal. Fair doesn’t mean you’ll like it. Fair means just and appropriate. Still, “it’s not fair” is a common refrain in my house. I like this story. Can’t wait to share it with my itsnotfairlings.

  • Susan

    I love how you found a gift that is seen as ‘unfair’ due to age, will actually end up being ‘unfair’ due to advanced technology. Brilliant!

    I have two older brothers and was quite the tom boy back in the day. I was very comfortable playing in the creek in the woods all day and making forts. So I thought it was very unfair that I could not have GI Joes or transformers, and instead had to feign interest in the dolls I never wanted nor asked for. That was unfair.

    But in all, what I really wanted wasn’t stuff or privileges… what I wanted from my brothers was to feel understood. I wanted my unique outlook and desires and creativity to be validated and admired. I wanted to feel like they respected me and valued what I had to say. I was often confused, thinking what I thought and wanted was -wrong- as opposed to just different. I wanted to feel just as important as my brothers, who often garnered more attention b/c they were more active and less dreamers and thinkers.

    Now I know they thought I was awesome, a “weird kid” with an insane imagination. They frequently tell me they know I can do anything, and that I always have…

  • Kristin T.

    Lorna, I like the “We’re not on Planet Fair” comment! I think lots of parents could make use of that. :) The problem comes (particularly in the workplace) when people take advantage of this “life’s not fair” truth and use it to justify unjust and discriminatory actions. As with everything, it’s all about finding a healthy balance.

    Meredith, yes, oldest children everywhere feel like their younger siblings got away with more. I’m the youngest child in my family, too, but in my case I think my brother feels like I got to do more than he did simply because I thought of things that hadn’t occurred to him. That’s definitely one of the disadvantages of “going first.”

    Meagan Francis, I love this: “We can only meet their needs the best we can and equip them to deal with all of life’s little inequities. And maybe be a little more tuned-in to life’s BIG inequities, and how they can be a part of the solution.” That’s SO important. Sometimes I get annoyed by all of these little complaints from my kids, but there are so many opportunities within them to have good conversations and teach important lessons.

    Jennifer, OK, the first part of your comment made me laugh out loud. I had to read to it Jason (who is, by the way, a middle child like you—you both pulled through fabulously, btw). And I really like your definition of fair: “Fair means just and appropriate.” I’ve been wondering whether we should ban the word “fair” from our vocabulary, or just work on teaching our kids a new way of understanding it.

    Susan, yeah, I like that, too. The funny thing is, we weren’t trying to make a point or teach a lesson with the iPod gift. We just thought iPods were good things to have (we’re big music lovers at our house) as long as the kids are old enough to be responsible for them. The advancing technology just built in the nice little lesson for us. :) And your third paragraph, about what you *really* wanted from your older brothers? I would love to read that to S—I think you’ve put into words *exactly* how she feels.

  • Tracy

    It’s good to be able to see thing’s from the youngest child’s perspective. As the oldest in my family, I relate more easily to the concerns and complaints of my two eldest (7 year gap, different fathers, so they both have oldest kid issues) and it takes a big shift in thinking to be able to see things from the younger one’s point of view.

  • CK

    Someone said it is a GOOD THING life is not fair because if we all got what we really deserved it would not be a pretty picture. LOL

  • Colleen Newvine Tebeau

    When I was a precocious little kid and I’d whine to my mom, “That’s not FAIR!” she would reply simply, “Life’s not fair.”

    She didn’t try to convince me of the justice of what was happening. She just acknowledged that, yup, sometimes we’ll feel like we’ve gotten the short end of the stick in life and now’s as good a time as any to learn to deal with it.

  • Kristin T.

    Tracy, as your youngest child gets a bit older, I bet he will make a point of making sure you’re hearing his perspective. :) My youngest is plenty vocal about it. (Btw, we have two “oldest” kids at our house, too—my stepdaughter is the oldest, but my firstborn spent 8 years in that role, and still fills that role when she and her sister are at their dad’s house.)

    CK, I’ve heard that response before, too. So true (and a good, basic explanation of what grace is all about in the Christian tradition).

    Colleen, I sort of admire your mom’s straightforward, blunt response—sometimes I think I should be more like that with my kids—but I also think it would have been very frustrating to me, as a kid. How did it feel to you at the time? I guess it probably depends on what kind of kid you were. I was always so logic-based, that I would accept pretty much any unhappy explanation or instruction, as long as it made *sense* to me. An answer that short would have never gone far enough in building a case I could wrap my mind around.