Consider this scenario. One daughter goes to the pool and her mom buys her some candy. Another daughter goes into town with her friends and uses her allowance money to buy some candy. A third daughter gets no candy that day.

Is this fair?

This was exactly the debate that unfolded in my household last week.  

One one level, you could look at this one particular situation and conclude that it isn’t fair.  One child got no candy, another had some but had to use their own money and a third received it for free. 

But should fairness always be evaluated in a vacuum?

For example, were there other times in the previous days when one of the children received something that the others didn’t?  Or when a child had to use their own money for something that had previously been subsidized by a parent for her sister? What if one child earns more allowance money than another? Do all children deserve or earn equal treatment in candy or otherwise based on their behavior? What if a child feels, in general, that they are not treated equally or fair?  Is every situation subsequently evaluated through that lens of confirmation bias?  

These conversations about fairness happen all too frequently in my house.  And to be honest, they usually don’t end very well.

Most often, it is excruciatingly difficult to get someone to look beyond their own feelings of being wronged; to see that perhaps there were other situations where they were the beneficiary of an inequity. To help someone understand that fairness is contextual, personal and not always zero-sum is challenging.  It is also difficult to admit when you yourself were unfair. 

While I’m talking about young children and candy, this probably holds true of any conversation about fairness. There are, without question, so many things about life that aren’t fair. But, in many cases, fairness is subjective. It is dependent upon what rules or standards you live by. What is fair for one person may be unfair to another. 

Hanging over all of this is how we see the world in general.  If we believe in a just world, where in the end, things even out and we are generally the primary drivers of our own lives, then we may be less bothered by the day to day unfairness around us. If, on the other hand, we see that the world is inherently unfair, filled with systems that perpetuate inequities, then every infraction of fairness should be noted and addressed.

Fairness, as you see, is very complicated and explains in part, my inability to negotiate a conversation about the daily unfair distribution of candy, who chooses what to watch on TV, bedtimes, chores or whatever topic where one of my three kids feels wronged.  

The instinct can be to shut down the conversation or make threats like, “Ok, no one gets candy ever!”  But that wouldn’t seem fair either, would it?  So let the fairness debates continue. I suppose there are worse ways to spend your time than having  conversations about right and wrong. 

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