Monday, August 19, 2013

A Few more Comments about the 'Fairness' Post

I just wanted to clarify something that I wrote about on Saturday...about fairness...

Remember when I was talking about Seth's frustration and sadness about the unfairness of having to fold the blankets when Lizzie had also used the blankets?  Remember how he and I engaged in discussion about fairness and he asked (and I answered) questions about why I'd let this unfairness happen given that I'd also experienced similar feelings of unfairness with my little sister?

I wanted to add this:  I didn't engage in any of that discussion with him until after he'd gone through the frustration and had experienced the sadness of feeling the futility of his circumstances, and until he'd come to a place of rest about it - which happened to take place on the same day/hour, but which might not have (in which case I'd have waited to have the conversation with him until a different time/day or just not had any conversation about it at all and simply waited for another experience of futility with him).

When we are in the height of frustration or sadness, it's doesn't help (and, in fact, can hurt) to go to logical/rational thinking - ie. pondering the 'why' of things.  This is an interesting factor in the idea of futility and adaptation because for so many of us it seems so easy, natural even (because it's the way we've been raised) to go right to the head knowledge stuff rather than experiencing the emotions of frustration and sadness.  I wanted Seth to live with his feelings for a while and therefore I chose not jump to his head for a discussion based on rational thought.  It's the feelings of sadness that come from a soft heart that ultimately lead to adaptation, not the encouragement of thought and rationale.  My goal is to let the kids live in their feelings of sadness for as long as it takes, so that they empty themselves of those feelings and experience having survived the experience.  That's what leads to adaptation.

I'll give you the example that our Neufeld consultant gave us some time ago, that made a lot of sense to me.

Imagine a child asking for a cookie just before dinner.  I, as the parent, say no to that request and the child puts up a fuss and perhaps tries to reason me into allowing the cookie.  If I'm engaging his head (ie. trying to reason with him), the conversation might go something like this:

Me:  "No, you can't have a cookie right now."

Child:  "But why?"

Me:  "Because we've having dinner shortly and eating a cookie now will spoil your appetite for supper."

Child:  "No it won't Mommy.  I'll just eat one, ok?"

Me:  "I want your tummy to be nice and hungry for supper in just a little while, honey."

Child: "But it will be Mommy.  I promise.  I'll still be hungry.  I'll eat my supper."

Me:  "How about we have one or even two cookies after supper?  That way we'll make sure your tummy is hungry and you can still have cookies to eat."

Child:  "I don't want them after supper.  I want them now.  You gave me one before...."

The conversation might continue on at this point, where the child continues to argue or negotiate and I counter each of his arguments with my own statement about why it's not going to happen.

But think about what the problem is here:  Have you ever heard your child, after you tell him that he can't have the cookie because it'll spoil his dinner, say something like "Oooh!  Now I understand why I can't have a cookie.  I won't ask that again."

Of course not...they don't have these lightbulb kinds of moments based on reason and rationale.  They're not primed to learn that lesson in that moment of frustration, especially if I continue to engage in the argument with him.

What if, on the other hand, I have this conversation with the child:

Me:  "No, honey, you can't have a cookie."

Child:  "But why?"

Me:  "Because Mommy said no."

Child:  "But Mommy, I really want a cookie...just one??"

Me:  "No, I'm sorry.  I know you want one.  But No cookie now."

Child:  "Please Mom?  Just one?"

Me:  "No, Mommy said no darlin'."

Child starts to cry - perhaps out of frustration.  He is experiencing the wall of futility.  I am the wall of futility.

Me (perhaps hugging child):  "That's so hard.  You really wanted that cookie."

Child (still crying): "I did. I do. Can I have one?" (hopefully)

Me (sympathetically):  "No.  No cookie."

Cue more crying, eventually leading to sadness - when he fully understands that the cookie is not forthcoming.  I'd offer comfort and any of my kids would accept it when they're crying sad tears.  And eventually, after feeling that sadness of futility (ie. they're sad because they simply cannot change the outcome to what they wanted), they would simply accept that there is no cookie coming before dinner.  They don't argue it any more b/c there's nothing to argue when it comes to a wall (of futility)...they just adapt to the inevitability of no cookie.

When our kids experience the sadness of futility, that is when they are able to adapt...perhaps after many such incidents, but that's how they truly adapt and know that they will survive the disappointments of their expectations and hopes.  This is a minor example, obviously, but it holds true in other situations equally well.

Sometime later, after the whole frustration and sadness thing is done (likely even on a different day), I might engage in conversation with my child again about that cookie when he and I are in a close moment.  In that moment, I might remind him of the cookie incident and offer him some rationale/head thought about it.  That's an ok moment in which to offer education, a moment in which he is able to process thought about it (because his emotions aren't heightened) and perhaps have some of that explanation sink in (or maybe not yet, maybe not until he's had more experience with futility).

I'll give you another example.

I don't always force my boys to play with Lizzie when she wants to be included - there are absolutely appropriate times for the kids to include everyone, in my opinion, but it definitely doesn't mean always, in our household.  Sometimes (regularly), even when she really, really wants to play with the boys, I'll allow the boys to play by themselves, effectively excluding Lizzie from that form of play.  She is often frustrated by that at first and pleads with me to allow her to play with them.  At that point, I could choose to offer her all kinds of rationale justifications for why I'm not going to allow it:  Sometimes boys and girls like to do different things; I'll just give them ten minutes and then you can join them; wouldn't you rather do something with me anyway; the boys haven't had much time together lately so I'm thinking it's a good idea to let them have some space right now; etc etc.

But what I do instead, when faced with her pleas to know 'why' is simply say something like "because this is the boys' time to play" or "because that's what Mommy decided."  When her frustration dissolves or changes into tears of sadness, because she knows she can't change the outcome, that's when adaptation can take place over time.  She will learn (over time and with lots of experiences of futility) that she will survive being excluded, even though she doesn't like how it feels.  Talk about a life lesson to learn for later on, when some teenage girl excludes her from some activity or when a boyfriend breaks her heart.

At different points in time (not in the heat of the moment), Lizzie and I have had LOTS of discussions about why sometimes boys like to play by themselves, and I'm perfectly happy to engage her head with reasoning in those moments where we're sitting together having meaningful conversation.  This gives her time to process things in her own way, and to come to some understanding about it (even if she still doesn't like it).

Also, I find it interesting that a few months ago, I started hearing from various teachers in her life (Sunday School, gym class, etc) that Lizzie was becoming really good at including other kids in games, even pulling them off of the sidelines to make sure they were welcome to participate.  My theory is that she knew well how it felt to be left out and was going to extra effort to ensure others didn't have to feel that way.  She was developing a sense of compassion for such situations...and she had learned to accept my 'no' as being a 'no' and was able to learn how to do other fun things without always having her brothers at her beck and call.  Yay on all fronts.


...back to my discussion with Seth about the unfairness of blanket folding.  I wanted to note here that my engagement in conversation happened with him after he'd completed his feelings of sadness over the situation and had come to rest about it.  Had this not happened on that day, I wouldn't have engaged his head in the 'why' of it all...I would have empathized with (and encouraged) his feelings of injustice and sadness on that day, and saved the rational head stuff for another day or for a different situation when he encountered futility and met it with sadness.

I'm so sorry if this all sounds complicated.  It's really not as complicated as it sounds, more of a outlook/attitude than anything, but it does require a long term perspective on things because those experiences of futility need to happen over and over for our children.

Does this make sense?  What do you do differently/the same?  I'm so interested in your thoughts!


  1. Is this the latest comment you have ever received to a post??

    I found your posts about fairness quite interesting and have been giving them some thought. A couple of weeks ago my kids had a meltdown over which restaurant we were going to have dinner at when we were up at the cabin. I was in shock that the selfish and ungrateful little beings were my children and decided that I was obviously doing something wrong because they were behaving so spoiled and entitled!

    So when I read your post about applying deliberate “unfairness” I thought there was some real merit in the idea (wish you had posted this approx 5 years ago though!!) The one thing I struggle with is how do you get them to understand that sometimes life is not fair and you have to accept that, but that they also need to stand up for themselves (and their friends) in situations where they are not being treated “equally”. From simple things like ensuring that everyone is getting their turn on the playground to more complicated things in later life like ensuring they are not discriminated against in the workplace?

    When I was a kid I feel like I was treated unequally because I was a girl (my parents were a little old-fashioned in this area). I had to clean up after dinner and had kitchen chores while my brother had none. When we were at family gatherings, I was called to help up with the clean up while my brother was allowed to play. It was never stated that this was because I was a girl, but I could look around the kitchen and see that there were certainly no male members of the family helping out!

    So what do you think – how do you teach them to stand up for themselves in unfair situations while still having them understand that sometimes things are not fair and they have to accept that?

  2. Big, big questions, Tracy...and I'm soo glad you're thinking through these things b/c they're important for our kids' future maturation and adaptation to life circumstances.

    Your last question is really the nub of it all. First, they will accept that life is sometimes not fair only when they feel with their hearts that it's not fair, and grieve it. There's no amount of talking that you can do that will actually help them accept this. So don't talk about it, especially not when they're experiencing something that's not fair. At that point, the best thing you can do is allow them to grieve and be their safe spot for grieving with. Let them cry and try to hold them in it for as long as possible..."I know this isn't wanted that so badly...yes, this happens," etc. When they are truly able to be sad about these situations and have many experiences like this, they truly learn that they will survive the unfairness of life...and that's called adaptation. They'll learn to deal with it and know they'll survive. That's genuine resilience.

    An unrelated issue is being able to stand up for themselves. That can happen only when there's some maturation happening and a child can do two things at once: understand someone else's perspective; and simultaneously hold onto one's own self/identity/etc. That's called integration and it's a fruit of maturation - when you can hang on to yourself even while understanding someone else's perspective. You don't need to worry NOW about the adult situations of being discriminated against...if they are able to mature in their pre-adulthood life and demonstrate the emergence of integration, they'll be ok in those later situations. In the meantime, until they can hold on to themselves while engaged with others, it's a parent's/teacher's job to ensure that kids are being protected. In non-emotionally-heightened moments, I'd take the opportunity to talk with my child about it being ok to stand up for him/herself, but I wouldn't expect them to actually be able to do that until they were mature enough to demonstrate that integration factor. It's our job to stand up for them until then.

    (to be continued)

  3. (continued from above)

    Depending on how old the kids are in the playground, they may or may not be ABLE to share or take turns - if they don't have mixed feelings yet (the ability to simultaneously hold two thoughts: I want to play on that equipment; AND so does my friend and I should take turns with her), they can't share. Until they can have two thoughts simultaneously, they can only think in one direction at a time: "I want to play on that piece of equipment." They can't simultaneously consider that a friend may want to play on it, too. We get so frustrated as parents of young children that they won't share, etc, but they simply can't until they have mixed feelings. So this is where we as parents/teachers need to step in and take charge and arrange the sharing, and simply know that they're not able yet (b/c of lack of mixed feelings) to know how to share.

    When it comes to kids feeling unfairly treated about restaurant decisions, yeah, that's really discouraging for us parents to see in our own kids. These kinds of things push a lot of buttons for me, too! But I try to hang on to myself and not offer any lectures...and instead just empathize that not everyone will get what they want and that's a hard thing. Again, it's a lack of mixed feelings on their part - they can only think about what they want in those moments of heightened emotions. In fact, in those kinds of situations, I usually do not invite input into decisions because that's a parent's decision. The caveat is when you're in public and the kids are having those meltdowns - my perspective in those situations is just to do whatever the heck you need to to get out of there with some dignity and worry about everything else for your private family moments. Feelings of futility, allowing for feelings of unfairness, etc, are usually not best done in public with others watching and judging you!

    When you talked about your experience as a child being asked to clean the kitchen, I could relate - my family of origin definitely had traditional outlooks on these kinds of things. It's only been in more recent years that I've allowed myself to grieve those things that didn't work for me as a child...and once I'd finished, I found that I could move on without any more bitterness (ie. adapt).

    Life ISN'T fair. We all know that, as adults. I think it's our job as parents to allow our kids to grieve the unfairness of life and to be sad about it...I know that I'm sad about things that I think are unfair...why shouldn't my kids be allowed to feel the sadness of it too? Even as an adult, when I have a good cry about something that just didn't work for me, I feel a whole lot better afterwards and know that I'll survive it...that works waaay better for me, even as an adult, than listening to someone (applying head knowledge) trying to explain to me why the situation will be ok in the end anyway, blah blah blah blah.

    Does that help? Do you have other thoughts? Questions? I'm no guru here, but I'm learning....and I'm so convinced that most of society is getting this stuff so wrong and that it's damaging our children from becoming the mature adults we all want them to become.

    Thank you SO much for the questions/comments, Tracy. I'm not sure why more people aren't commenting and questioning things and engaging in these discussions. THey are so important!