Somehow, my children have been given the impression that all circumstances in life must be fair.
For example, if my daughter reveals at the dinner table that she had a cupcake at school because it was someone’s birthday in her class, my son’s voice will instantly raise three octaves and he will then launch into a whiny diatribe about how “That Is Not Fair.”
Moreover, he will then attempt to rectify this breach of equality by insisting that since she had a cupcake, he should be allowed to have a cupcake, or some other food that approximates the size and junky-ness of a cupcake. As if the two of them live on either side of the Scale of Justice, and it must be in perfect balance at all times.
I honestly have no idea how my kids came to believe that such fairness is the way of the world, because since they’ve been old enough to talk, my routine response to the It’s Not Fairs has always been “Sorry, guys, but life isn’t always fair.” I know they hear me, too, because when my daughter is outraged by the fact that my son got a pack of Pokemon cards for no particular reason and she got nothing, or when my son is aghast to discover my daughter in my room, watching Project Runway after he’s allegedly gone to bed, the one with the upper hand can often be heard repeating my now famous line to the one that’s feeling slighted.
Which, of course, does absolutely nothing to stop the slighted one from running to me and further declaring the unfairness of it all, which I never really understand because they both know that I’m going to say the exact same thing. And yet, the It’s Not Fairs persist on.
But then a few weeks ago, I read about this online game called Spent. Basically, it’s designed to illustrate the kinds of impossible choices that so many people in America have to make every day when they’re struggling to make ends meet.
In the game, you get a job, and then you have to make a series of decisions about how you’re going to spend your money. The goal is to make it through the month without running out of cash. I went to the website to check it out, and as I was choosing between taking a day off from work to go to my beloved grandfather’s memorial service or skipping the service so that I wouldn’t lose a day’s pay, I thought to myself, what a great tool to show my children what it is I mean when I say that life isn’t always fair. So that night, after dinner, we sat down around the computer and we played Spent, together.
After failing a typing test to qualify for a temp job in an office, we got a job as a server in a restaurant. At first, a lot of the choices didn’t entirely register with them. For example, choosing whether to spend $70 a month to opt in for health insurance wasn’t something they really understood, even when I tried explaining to them the financially devastating consequences that can result from being uninsured. But it wasn’t long before some of the choices started to become personal for them.
Like, your child is invited to a birthday party, but you have to bring a gift. Do you buy the gift for $10, or do you keep your child home from the party? Or, your child needs a new pair of sneakers. Do you buy the name brand for $35, or do you go to a thrift store, even though the other kids will tease him?
I asked my kids, “How’s that for not fair?” I explained things to them and we debated over choices for nearly an hour, really struggling with so many of them. Deciding what to buy at the market, deciding whether to pay the electric bill or the gas bill, deciding whether to pay hundreds of dollars to fix a car you hit in a parking lot, or driving away instead. The choices didn’t just speak to fairness, but also to ethics, community, pride and survival. If you have a little bit of time one night, I highly recommend it as a family activity.
But, for the purposes of this post, the real question here is, now that my kids have played this game, will the Its Not Fairs suddenly grind to a halt? I seriously doubt it. But the next time I tell them that life isn’t always fair, I’ll also remind them of the game we played, and of the horribly unfair circumstances that exist for so many. And I’m hoping that maybe, just maybe, they’ll have gained a little bit of perspective about it all.