I have been thinking a lot about fairness. Anyone who is raising a young child has at least one conversation a week about fairness. We often disappoint our children and frustrate them when they don’t get something someone else has. Children also get angry if they don’t get something they got before; don’t get something they were expecting to get, or don’t get something “so wonderful” that they have to have it. Children see the world with less complexity than adults.
Children are slowly learning that having something for yourself might mean that someone else does not get to have it. It will be a very long time before they are able to consider the costs to someone else for the things that they have. A simple example comes at gift giving times. Auntie Maddie might send Sasha a lovely hand knit sweater that probably took three months to make and cost a small fortune in fine materials. If Sasha is nine she might hate the color and treat that article of clothing with all the respect of a throw-away. She is not going to be able to appreciate and care for this gift in the same manner that an adult will. She cannot possibly understand the cost to Auntie Maddie. We have to teach her gently and for life.
We can require our children practice respectful behavior for others efforts and gifts. We can model care and attention to the people and things. But, children are intellectually incapable of thinking about the dilemmas that come up when when someone considers her own needs in competition with the needs and desires of others. Their thinking becomes much more sophisticated in adolescence and they might develop expertise in complex thinking earlier with practice in a specific area.
A strong sense of justice is one important characteristic that can help reduce the risk that we live with violence. Justice is a core strength in the VIA, which I wrote about recently. There are people with a strong sense of justice. These individuals feel pleasure when they are able to support a fair distribution of resources; and, they are excited and interested in assuring that others are not discriminated against or unfairly taken advantage of by more powerful people. This trait can show up really early. My oldest daughter (age 11) told me that she had noticed an adult unfairly reacting to one of my daughter’s peers. Mind you, this particular peer has not been especially kind to my daughter. Still, my daughter was unhappy to see an adult treat this child more harshly and with stronger reactions than other children for the same behaviors. My daughter’s sense of justice made her recognize that patient, reasonable, and fair consequences for everyone makes the community a better place.
One of the biggest challenges to ending bullying in schools is that children do not tell the adults when they witness aggression. They do not do this because they do not believe adults will respond effectively, the aggressor might be a friend, they expect that the aggressor will retaliate towards them, they expect the situation to get worse, and they do not see it as something that is relevant to their life. To prevent violence in our lives, we need to be motivated to struggle with disparities in how people are treated.
How do children learn to see everyone as having a right to being protected from aggression? If children see us considering the value of others who are not in our group, they will learn that others have value. If children hear us struggle to fairly treat people we care for or provide some service to — even at our own expense, they will learn that we value others. If we stand up to unfair policies and practices and try to right injustices, then our children will.
What would our world look like if every person agreed to conduct their lives with justice? We will continue to live in an unjust world. In fact, the world cannot be conducted with absolute fairness. We mere humans don’t have anywhere near the power to pull that off: We are at the top of the food chain. What sort of difference might we make in violence, if we all struggled with the dilemmas that injustice poses? Can we raise our awareness of the importance of treating others justly so our children know that we will support them when they take a stand against violence?