A recent foray into the world of parenting books led me to the painfully familiar concept of being “fair.” While this is not (yet) a personal concern, I can well remember times growing up when things seemed “unfair” amongst my siblings. Without doubting that our parents intended the best for all of us, it was easy to feel that they had on this or that occasion made a mistake. More mature years sometimes corrected that impression by validating the parental point of view; at other times, not. In either case, the fact stands: however good the parents are as parents, their children will oftentimes think them unfair.
The parenting expert whose work I was reading encouraged parents not to worry about this—in fact, he made it a life lesson for the children. Parents, he wrote, should tell their children from an early age that they (the parents) will not always be fair—indeed, when children complained, he suggested that the parents flaunt their “unfairness” rather than back down. After all, the expert observed, parents are better judges of situations than children; and anyway, quite frankly, life itself is not fair, so the kids should get used to it!
Interestingly enough, in the concrete examples the expert gave, he did not actually suggest unfairness. In counseling a couple with two boys, he proposed that one week they buy shoes for one and next week a shirt for the other; another time they might choose to take one boy out bowling, and a few days later take the other out to the movies. Depending upon which boy coveted which item or experience more, this behavior still might be perceived as unfair by the boys. But it was quite evident that the expert was concerned that there should be no real inequality between the children in terms parental treatment. He was advocating tough rhetoric, but not meanness in action (which is, whatever else one may say about it, a better balance than the reverse).
The curious thing about this subterranean fairness is that the expert ignored the possibility (which he elsewhere acknowledges) that sometimes children really shouldn’t get comparable things from their parents (much less the same things at the same time). And this apparent unfairness may actually be fair. If, for example, one child shows a real talent for music and a willingness to work hard at it, must you ensure that his sibling has an equivalent hobby, even if that sibling has shown less interest, aptitude, and enthusiasm? This goes still more for academic expertise: some kids are smarter than others, and it’s not unreasonable for parents to invest more in the schooling of those who take to schooling. Similarly in sports, it is not necessarily the case, though one child is on a team K through twelve, that every other child must also be, in Fairness’ Name. To be sure, the parents may decide that two or three years of a sport or instrument are necessary enrichment, and that all their children must finish high school. But it hardly follows that that every child needs to get the same amount of “enrichment points” (assuming that those could be accurately calculated, which I rather doubt).
This may not feel fair when you seem to have gotten the short end of a particular stick. But maybe a short stick was all you were equipped for—maybe you really didn’t have the talent for a longer one. And if so, the unfairness is God’s fault (pardon the expression), not your parents’.
This is all sounding rather harsh; let me put it another way. Consider the etymology of the word “fair.” Recall how Tolkien uses it. “Fair” in older literature (or literature which adopts an older style) does not mean “just.” Indeed, the first sense of “fair” given by the Oxford English Dictionary is “Beautiful, agreeable” (AI); secondarily, fair means “Beautiful to the eye; of attractive appearance; good-looking” (AI1). It is only after a long series of applications of this sense of fair to various objects, from women to animals to words, that we arrive at AII, where “fair” is defined as “Favourable; benign; unobstructed,” e.g., “fair weather” or “fair circumstances.” All the way down at AII14 we get the modern sense of “fair”: “Of conduct, actions, methods, arguments, etc.: free from bias, fraud, or injustice; equitable; legitimate, valid, sound” (AII14.a.(a)); “Of a person: characterized by equitable or lawful conduct; honest, just; reasonable” (AII14.a.(b)); “Of conditions, circumstances, etc.: providing an equal chance of success to all; not unduly favourable or adverse to anyone” (AII14.b.).
This exercise is not designed to delegitimize the concept of fairness. The point is rather its connection to the beautiful and the agreeable. To understand what “fair” means in the modern sense, it is important to understand the older sense of the word, and thus also to understand what is meant by beauty. Traditionally, beauty was defined in terms of proportionality, integrity, and clarity; the element of proportionality is most relevant here. To be fair (old sense) was to have a proportionality, integrity, and clarity to one’s appearance or actions. To be fair (new sense) is to act in a proportional way. One does not give a five-year-old and a fifteen-year-old the same size meal—that would not be proportional; it would not, in fact, be fair! Admittedly, the five-year-old might complain that things are unfair when he sees big brother is getting two hamburgers and he only has one. But the fact is (as his parents know) that if he starts with two hamburgers on his plate he’ll end up with a bellyache.
It’s easy to see this with respect to things like food, because the proportionality in terms of size is visible, tangible to even the most prosaic adult mind. It’s harder, perhaps to see in other areas; but the fact of the need for proportionality is no less real. The Communist dictum, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” is as necessary in personal family dealings as it is damaging when applied to political life; for parents, unlike the government, are in a position to judge the abilities and needs of those whom they govern. Perhaps they do not always do so perfectly, but they have both the right and the duty to make the attempt. And if, at the end of the day, something truly disproportionate and unfair transpires … Well, kids, in the words of the expert, life isn’t fair.
Also, more importantly, your parents probably love you anyway. And love from parents to children, beginning at birth and extending sometimes for far too long afterwards, is perhaps the ultimate case of unfairness, because it is frequently all out of proportion with the object’s just deserts.
I don't know about you, but I wanted to sit on the dog!