Friday, October 09, 2020

"It's Not Fair"


In my early years as a teacher, I had an idea for teaching four and five-year-olds about fairness. I filled a small treasure box with a collection of plastic cut gems, the kind one often finds be-sparkling princess jewelry. I told the children that the gems were "special" and asked them to not touch as I showed the box around. I could see it appealed to the kids and many of them struggled with their self-control as the open box was passed under their noses. 
I then said, "I'm going to give one gem to every girl."

My idea was that the boys would object, which would then lead to a discussion about fairness. I was operating under the well-established (at the time) idea that young children are essentially selfish and selfless concepts like fairness were learned behavior. I felt pretty clever.

As I began doling out the gems one at a time to the girls, I noted the concerned looks on the faces of the boys, just as I was hoping, but then something unexpected happened. One of the girls refused her gem, saying, "That's not fair. The boys should get gems too." Then one of the girls who already had a gem in her fist handed it back to me saying, "Yeah, it's not fair. I don't want mine either." I even tried to plow forward with my little exercise, but the girls, as one, refused. Even more surprisingly, the boys sat silently until finally one of them said, softly, as if still not so sure, "It's not fair."

Not only had they blown up my plan, they had both rebelled and shamed me for even thinking of it. I thought, These are extraordinary kids, and later told the story to their parents so they could feel good about how well they had taught their essentially selfish preschoolers about fairness. Certainly, I thought, this had been an exception to the rule, so the following school year, I tried it again, this time starting with the boys under the notion that maybe what had happened had something to do with gender. Same results. So I tried it again the next year, this time, ditching gender as my dividing line, and going with stripes v. non-stripes. Again they wouldn't let me finish.

I finally, after several years of trying, had no choice but to recognize that the "selfish" theory of young children, at least when it came to this distribution of gems, was false. Not only did the kids instantly identify my project as unfair, they preferred I keep the gems to myself if I wasn't going to distribute them fairly. 

I now know that what I had witnessed is what psychologists, economists, and anthropologists call "inequality aversion." It seems that we are not born to be selfish suns around whom the universe revolves, but rather are genetically disposed to seek fairness whenever possible. Humans are born to share. Our species is inclined to help one another, not vie against one another. In fact, selfishness, contrary to theories of "survival of the fittest" (a term that Charles Darwin himself reportedly came to regret), is a learned behavior, one that we, in spite of ourselves, teach to our children.

Even before learning about inequality aversion, I had given up on any attempt to teach fairness, and today I view my attempts as incredibly patronizing and even a little cruel. I've discovered that if I let the children alone, fairness seemed to emerge time and again, perhaps not in the tit-for-tat way that my adult mind has come to understand it, but rather in the ad hoc, situational way that children naturally organize themselves, a fairness based upon the agreements they make among themselves. Children, it's clear, have more to teach us about fairness than the other way around.

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