Sunday, November 8, 2009

"Life's Not Fair"

Maybe I'm just still six years old at heart (unlikely), but I really don't understand the attitude adults, particularly parents, take toward fairness. Fairness is obviously a fundamental part of human nature. From a very early age, kids understand the concept of fairness and will point out at any give opportunity, "That's not fair!" They're usually right. So why, then, do their parents inevitably respond, "Life's not fair," as though that's reason enough to quit expecting fairness in any situation? Parents invoke fairness when teaching their children to equitably divide dessert or toys or take turns, but the second their kid notices that someone else gets to stay up later or go on better vacations or get more Christmas presents or go to PG-13 movies and invoke the fairness principle, parents parrot, "Life's not fair" like it's an extremely clever and discussion-ending retort (hint: it's not) taught in parenting guides (if it is, it shouldn't be).

It's true, life isn't fair. Some people have more stuff than others, some people get better breaks than others, some people are taller or smarter or skinnier or better looking or more athletic or more musical than others, some people are born into families with more money and connections than others. But isn't it one of the main principles of progressive society that people are all inherently worth the same and thus the more the playing field can be leveled, the better? Don't we all want life to be as fair as we can make it? Isn't fairness the goal? Of course life isn't fair, but it should be. We should do everything we can to make it be. Simply citing life's unfairness as an unchangeable fact and going from there is so depressing. It's really frustrating for children: "It's not fair." "Life's not fair." "I know, that's what I'm complaining about!"

Maybe parents are just trying to teach their children not to expect life always to treat them fairly. If so, though, they're not doing a very good job of articulating their lesson. There's a big difference between, "Oh, sweetie, I'm sorry you didn't [do/get whatever]. Sometimes life just isn't fair and you don't get things even if you deserve them. That sucks, and I'm sorry it happened to you" and, "Life's not fair!" said in a tone that's half "So shut up already" and half "Whyever would you expect it to be, dummy?" It doesn't help that "Life's not fair" is generally used when a child is complaining about something unfair the parent him/herself is doing. It's an implied, Oh, life's not fair, so it doesn't matter that I let your younger sister stay up just as late as you, or, Life's not fair, so I don't have to make sure all siblings have the same level of awesomeness at their birthday parties, or, Life's not fair, so it doesn't matter that everyone else your age gets to do X and you don't. Simply citing the unfairness of the rest of life shouldn't get parents off the hook for not being as fair as possible. The rest of life isn't under their control, but bedtimes, presents, privileges, chores, and most of the other things children whine about the unfairness of are.

Or maybe I'm missing some important principle about justice and I'm stuck with an immature idea of justice as fairness...but I kind of doubt it. Is this one of those things that gets squeezed out of you as you age along with liberalism and thinking you can change the world? Doesn't it seem horribly like giving up everything good and right in the world to jadedly tell your small, pure, idealistic children the harsh truth of the unfairness of life, the universe, and everything and expect them to accept it? What's so wrong with fairness?

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