I’m sitting here watching my children play a game of domino’s. They play with their pieces face-up where the other players can see them, and my four year old watches closely to see what pieces her sisters have in their possession. She doesn’t do this to her own advantage. Instead, she carefully considers what the other players have in order to play the pieces that will help them to win. Sometimes, she’ll even help her sisters beat her, telling them which pieces to play so that they have the advantage. The amazing thing is that she genuinely wants her sisters to beat her. She takes tremendous satisfaction in each victory they obtain and never feels the need to win against them.
I’m in awe of this kind of behavior coming from my four year old, but not necessarily surprised. We have tried to teach our children to be happy when something good happens to their siblings and not to them, and we have never tried to be “fair” with our children. I have brought home toys for some of the children and not others, and watched those who were given the special gifts pool their allowance money to buy something for the child who was left out. I have ordered special clothing for one child, and later witnessed that child loaning it to her sisters to wear. I have witnessed my two year old, on numerous occasions, give a coveted toy over to his younger brother and my two older girls find a tremendous satisfaction in giving their siblings the “best” bowl of cereal, or the biggest cookie. This isn’t to say that my children are perfect, or that they never argue. But they rarely expect to be given something simply because it is given to someone else, or complain if someone gets a special privilege that they are not allowed.
I’ve seen so many families struggling in this area with their children and my heart truly goes out to them. It is a tremendous emotional (and I’d imagine, financial) drain to constantly be worried over “fairness” toward the children. If one child gets a gift, the other child must have one, too. If one child is asked to go on a special play date with a friend, Mom and Dad must promise a similar outing to the child left behind. If one child plays a game with Daddy, the other child must play, too. It can leave both Mom and Dad utterly drained and emotionally spent.
This practice of fairness results in blessings being held back from those who should have them, as well. If Mom is at the clothing store and finds the perfect outfit for her oldest girl, she feels obligated to find an outfit for the younger sister. And if she can’t? She doesn’t by anything and denies her daughter the blessing of an outfit that she would really love. If Dad is going out and there is a place for one child to go but not the other, then no one gets to go and a child is denied the blessing of an outing. Older children are often required to give up privileges that should be theirs, and younger children are allowed experiences that are above their level of maturity. Children are denied gifts and privileges that they truly deserve to have, simply because they aren’t available to others in the family.
The fact is that parents who practice fairness are “missing one of the greatest opportunities to teach their children to rejoice in the blessings of others” (1). When we allow our children to strive for equality in all things, and encourage their behavior by trying to be “fair,” we cultivate in them a spirit of discontentment and covetousness. Rather than being happy for the brother or sister who receives something special, the child brought up in fairness feels cheated. Rather than focusing on the good of others and desiring to see them blessed, the child focuses on his or her own lack. It’s the ultimate expression of selfishness – the inability to see others blessed without becoming resentful.
In Matthew 20:1-15, Jesus tells the story of a man who hired laborers to work in his field for an agreed upon price. They started early in the morning, and a few hours later, he hired another set of workers who joined them and then later, another set. When it came time to pay them, the employer gave each man the same amount of money, even though they did not work for an equal amount of time. The men who had worked all day were not happy about their treatment, for though they had begun the day expecting only a certain amount, they did not expect others (who had not worked as long) to receive the same amount as they. The workers were treated justly (they were given the amount they had agreed to work for) but not fairly (when compared to the others.) The employer (typifying God) responds by defining their desire for equality as ‘evil.’ “Their hearts were turned toward evil when they coveted the increase of their neighbor” (2).
There was once an experiment done that demonstrates this principle in a modern-day example. “A scenario was created in a supermarket in which a customer (an actor) asks to cut in front of someone in line for the cashier because he only has a few items. As the actor is being waited on, he is informed that he is the five-millionth customer, and therefore has won $500. The person that allowed him to cut in front of him in line is then filmed close-up for any reaction. Most of the people in this situation reacted negatively, since they would have otherwise been the recipients of this award–with one woman exclaiming specifically, ‘It just isn’t fair,’ over and over again. But there was one patron who was actually happy for the other actor/patron. When asked why she wasn’t disappointed, she said, ‘Oh, I’m just happy for him. I’ll get blessed another way'” (3).
I want my children to be like that lady! I want them to grow up with the ability to rejoice in the good fortune of others. I want them to be more concerned over the well-being of their siblings, spouses, co-workers, and neighbors than for themselves. I want them to be more focused on their responsibilities than on their rights.
Christianity hinges on self-sacrificing love. “Fairness” and “entitlement” are not compatible with that kind of love. It is my desire to cultivate a Christian worldview for my children when they are young. If Christian principles are taught to my two-year olds, they will be practiced by my twenty year olds. “Train up a child in the way he should go, and he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6).
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