Thursday, August 25, 2016

"Maybe They'll Help Next Time"




Do children understand justice? Of course, but usually not the way adults do.

For instance, a few years ago, a group of children were busy tidying up the block area, putting our Duplo blocks into their containers. A boy named River was not helping them, but was, rather, milling about in a way that seemed to me as if he was simply seeking to avoid his share of the work. This didn't seem fair to me, but since no one was complaining I didn't say anything. Then, just as the children tossed the last Duplo into the box, River grabbed the lid, and with a decisive finality, popped it on the box before carrying to to the shelf where it is kept. To me it looked as if he had let others do the work only to steal the glory. Not fair!

He did the same thing the following day and the day following that. It was really getting under my skin and I wondered how long it was going to take before it got under his "harder working" classmates' skins as well. Then the day came that in the midst of tidying up one of the other children found the lid of the box, picked it up and handed to River before going back to work. River waited with the lid until the box was full. The children then called River over to finish the job and everyone sort of celebrated as he self-importantly carried the box to the shelf.

My adult sense of justice saw an unequal division of labor. The children, however, were not only satisfied, but supportive of River's choice of how to pitch in.

This sort of thing happens all the time around the school, where our adult sensibilities are offended while the children are just fine. And too often, I think, we feel compelled to step in as the long arm of the law when it's entirely unnecessary. Every day, I see some children "working harder" than others or even "doing the work of others" without complaint or even the sense that there could be anything wrong with the equation. Of course, the argument could be made that the kids simply haven't learned or developed a "proper" sense of justice, but I tend to look at it, at least in some ways, as a more evolved sense of justice: there is work to be done, it is our community, we do the work. Sure there are always a few kids who opt out of tidying up and other "work," but I've found that if I don't make a big deal about it, the children rarely do either.

I'm reminded of my experiences in reading the classic folk tale The Little Red Hen, in which many if not most of the children struggle with the "moral" that the hen gets to eat all the bread herself because she did all the work. "Why doesn't she share with them?" they ask, or "What if they were too tired to work?" "What if they're hungry?" My adult sense of justice is offended that the lazy animals should insist on a share of the bread, but that ending rarely sits right with the kids. In all my years of reading that story, there are always a few who see "justice" the way adults do, but most do not, and I've never had a child suggest that the "lazy" roommates should suffer as a result. No, most of the time, the kids think that everyone should share the bread.

As one girl put it with a shrug, "Maybe they'll help next time." 


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