Supplying food items for our local food pantry.

Me: “Tekoa, I have two strawberries left.  Which one would you like?”
Tekoa: “Hmm…which one is bigger?”

I smiled.  Tekoa and I were sharing a snack while on our recent vacation, and while I would not expect such a straightforward response from anyone other than my four-year-old daughter, it is generally what anyone in Tekoa’s position might be thinking.  As she grows, her thought process will be more complicated and strictly internal: Which one is bigger?  Is my mom hungrier than I am? Does she want the bigger strawberry?  What does it mean if I take the bigger one?  Will I look greedy? Selfish? What if I save the bigger one for her…she would like that?  But at four years old, issues of strawberries are pretty cut and dry.  I love them.  I’d like a lot of them.  Simple.

Now suppose I brought Simone (Tekoa’s younger, three-year-old sister) into the picture and I offered the strawberries again.  If Tekoa overtly chose the largest strawberry, saving the small one for her sister, can you hear the protest?  “That’s not fair!”

Fairness and equality are issues that surface frequently in early childhood settings, and we have typical scripts for dealing with these issues that I think do more harm than good.  Typical, well-intentioned responses to a melancholy that’s not fair! (accented with all the appropriate prolonged vowels and inflection) are to correct (Yes, it is fair! See? You each have three berries.) or adjust for equality (Here. If I give you this one, then you each have three.) or discount (Life’s not fair. Get used to it.)

Here’s the clincher: twenty years down the line, when this group of young children has both of their feet firmly in adulthood, I want them to speak out against injustice.  I want them to be advocates for change and fairness.  And if I hope for it then, I have to start now.  Potter Stewart, a former associate justice of the supreme court said, “Fairness is what justice really is.”  If this is true, and I am seeking to grow traits of activism and justice-seeking, then the words, that’s not fair springing forth from the young mouths in my midst should be music to my child-developing-justice-pursuing ears.  Instead of hearing protest, I can choose to hear a heart sensitive to the realities of an unjust world.  And, instead of squelching this tender penchant for justice, I can offer support to help it grow strong for the collective needs for the community.

So how?  How do we move past our gut reaction to trivialize, discount, or demean?

1.  Connect first.  Without trying to make all things equal (because remember, equal is not always fair), reflect back to the child the heart of what they are saying. Connecting with their need can help them verbalize their plan for a new course of action.
At mealtime
Child: “That’s not fair! She got more!”
Me: “It sounds like you are still hungry.”

During play
Child: “That’s not fair!  I want the dinosaur!”
Me: “You wish you had the dinosaur.”

2.  Mobilize to action. Equip children to deal with issues of unfairness (however small and petty they seem to us).  Provide explicit scripts to help them get what they need.
At mealtime
Child: “That’s not fair! She got more!”
Me: “It sounds like you are still hungry.”
Child: “Yes.”
Me: “You can ask for more if you are hungry after you finish.”

During play
Child: “That’s not fair!  I want the dinosaur!”
Me: “You wish you had the dinosaur.”
Child: “Yes.”
Me: “You can ask your friend for the next turn, or you can ask your friend to help you look for another one.”

3.  Talk openly, and use language of fairness in everything.  Yesterday, we walked into the grocery store, and the kids asked about a giant food collection barrel that served our local food pantry.  “There are people who don’t have food to eat.  This collection spot lets us donate food so that people who are hungry can have food.  Let’s read the list of items and decide on something to add.”  We chose canned fruit.  Often, parents and educators are afraid to draw a child’s attention to issues of injustice for fear that children are too young to manage such weighty issues.  Ann Pelo and Fran Davidson, in their marvelous book, That’s Not Fair!: A Teacher’s Guide to Activism with Young Children, talk about using issues that arise naturally in the child’s experience as a launching point.  To take my own pet project and import it on to the crew would be disrespectful and inappropriate.  To work with what the children already experience and nurture their ideas for justice prepares them for a life of seeking the best for everyone.

By honoring the young heart for justice, we prepare our children to make the world a little more fair as they grow into adulthood.  I can’t imagine much better.