OK, friends. QUICK PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT because we have to stop saying these things to our kids:
“There are going to be bullies his whole life, so he needs to start learning how to deal with that now.”
“She’s going to have to learn to work with people who make her feel uncomfortable.”
“Welp, life is unfair. Welcome to reality, child.”
And I know especially that last one is going to get someone’s goat. Like, real bad. Like, someone is going to stake his LIFE on that particular “life’s unfair” statement like it’s a doctrinal issue or protected in the Constitution or required for our very life on Planet Earth. But let me gently suggest something here — something that will be wholly new to some of us — children are hard-wired to seek justice and equality, and that’s a good thing, not something to tamp down or snuff out. We need to be really, really careful, friends, and also intentional about exactly what we’re teaching our kids.
Now, listen. I get it. I’ve been in the car with kids fighting over the front seat. I’ve watched them bicker over who got a skosh more ice cream. I’ve witnessed them fall all the way apart over whose turn it is to crack an egg, or stir the brownie batter, or lick bowl vs. spoon. I’ve said it myself when they’re stomping their feet or crumbling under the weight of their It’s Not Fair grief. “TOO BAD,” I have said. “LIFE IS NOT FAIR.” But I’ll tell you this, too — I’ve said it more to shut them up than because I believe in the veracity of the statement. I’ve said it to preemptively end the drama and pull rank. I’ve said it because I was TIRED and DONE and OVERWHELMED WITH MOMMING. What I was really saying was, “I believe this situation is minuscule. I believe this situation isn’t worth the emotion you’re investing in it. I believe this isn’t a big deal that’s worth my time and effort to correct. So I want you to Just Let It Go.”
My response, in other words, had nothing to do with how I feel about life or fairness. If the situation were bigger — if it was one I deemed “worthy” — I’d never come at my kids with a “life’s not fair” response.
Say my kid did every assignment in class, got full credit, aced all the tests, and ended up with a C- grade. When my kid comes to me and says, “This isn’t fair,” you better bet I’ll be meeting with the teacher to figure out what happened. I wouldn’t shrug my shoulders and say, “Oh, well — life isn’t fair, you know.” You wouldn’t expect me to. No one would. Nor would I accept that response from the teacher. We’d be looking at the grade book, ensuring our understanding matches, discussing, and problem solving. Right? Because we all seek to make things fair. All of us.
Or say I go to the grocery store and they give me less change than I have coming. I’m going to point it out, and the clerk isn’t going to look at me and say, “Life isn’t fair, lady — say ‘bye to that $5 forever.” That’s … totally ridiculous. We can’t even fathom that situation happening.
We all expect to be treated fairly. We expect it, and we should fight for it, yes? Life is NOT fair. That’s true, but it’s not an axiom we should use as though that’s the end of the story. Or as though that’s OK. And we certainly shouldn’t be teaching it to our kids as though they should simply accept unfairness. That’s … totally ridiculous, too.
It’s important to say what we mean and mean what we say. It matters that we help our kids understand the truth behind our words. So it’s not acceptable to spout easy phrases like “Life’s not fair,” when what we mean is, “This feels like a Big Thing to you, but I’m too exhausted to make who’s sitting in the front seat my top priority right now. Because this is a safety issue, we are not going to debate this standing in the Target parking lot. Abby gets the front seat. We’ll chat at home about how to ensure we’re all getting turns, right after Mommy gets a REAL BIG CUP OF COFFEE.” Let’s be sure to differentiate, shall we?
We wonder why justice is continually battered. We wish for better ways to fight inequality and inequity. We’re frustrated by the complacency of bystanders and their unwillingness to get involved when justice has gone awry. BUT WE KEEP SAYING THESE THINGS TO OUR CHILDREN, the “this is just the way it is” statements, and — listen up — THEY BELIEVE US. We’ve trained the people of our culture to be unresponsive. We’ve coached each other into conformity for generations. We’ve schooled ourselves to shut down our hearts and guts that tell us otherwise. We’ve managed to still our consciences. And now it’s up to us to change that.
THE GOOD NEWS IS OUR KIDS ALREADY GET IT.
The good news is the kids can lead us in the way we should go.
The good news is that that sense of what’s right and fair and just is already etched in their hearts, and if we can listen to them for a few minutes and not squash it, we can create substantive cultural change.
I sat in a meeting with school officials a few years ago. One of my kids was being treated rather terribly, similar to last week’s situation but not entirely the same. There was a child lashing out, and my child was being hurt. I emailed the teacher. I accepted the invitation to meet with the principal and teacher. We sat at a tiny table in tiny plastic chairs and discussed.
And they said to me, “There are going to be bullies his whole life, so he need to start learning to deal with that now. He’s going to face this in middle school, and high school, and college, and someday in the work place. There are mean people everywhere. You need to let him know it’s just life.”
I admit there was a pause in the conversation because I was dumbfounded. Like, my brain stuttered, and I couldn’t quite get it to cooperate. I even wondered for a moment if they might be right before I came to my senses.
“OH!” I said, “No. Nope. No, I’m definitely not going to tell him that, because that’s not true.”
What they were really saying was this, “This is just how it is. It’s not going to change. We will not help you make it change. Deal with it. Accept it. Acquiesce. Succumb.”
But I will not teach my child to be powerless. I will not teach my child a sense of defeat. I will not teach him to accept that environments with mean people are the only environments in the world. I will not teach him to accept a world that’s not fair and not right, because it’s OK to want things to be fair. It is OK to protest unfairness. It is OK to seek justice. It is GOOD to challenge a system that supports systemic injustice.
I’ve heard a lot of statements I used to think were normal that I now find quite bizarre. “Life isn’t fair” said with fatalism. “He’s just going to have to learn to deal with this.” “She needs to learn to work with people that make her feel uncomfortable.”
That’s a hard no from me, friends.
All the nopes.
I will teach my children they have choices and can take action. I will teach my children not to accept unfair as the norm. I will teach my children to speak up. I will teach my children I’m on their team. I will teach by example how to use my power — as a white person, as an adult, as a person who experiences privilege — to champion those without it. And I will teach my children they don’t have to remain in situations where they are being harmed or are uncomfortable or are being treated unfairly.
We cannot have it both ways. We cannot teach children both to trust their gut — one of the main skills emphasized in self-defense classes so they know to GET OUT when they feel things aren’t right — and to shut down their instincts at school because “life’s unfair” or they should “learn to be uncomfortable.”
My oldest daughter, Abby, called me from college two years ago when she was just starting out. She wasn’t sure she’d made the right choice to be out of state. She was homesick. She wanted to quit and come home. I told her to do it. If she already knew she was in the wrong spot, I said, COME HOME NOW. Life’s too short to stay in a situation that’s not right. She decided to stay. She thought it through, decided this was a situation to overcome rather than give in, and she stayed. Greg complimented me for my excellent reverse psychology in getting her to stay at school. I told him I wasn’t kidding. He looked like he was going to vomit, but he came around once he had a few minutes to think. But that’s the thing; SHE decided. She knew how to listen to her gut because she’d practiced. She knew whether this was a situation to abandon or a situation to stay.
Here’s what I need us to all understand, friends: YOU CAN QUIT, AND SOMETIMES YOU SHOULD. The trick of parenting is not — I repeat, NOT — to teach our kids to persevere at all costs, although perseverance is an important skill for sure. The trick of parenting is helping our kids suss out when we need to persevere — when the THING WE WANT TO ACCOMPLISH is WORTH the cost of the hurdle we have to overcome — and when it’s OK to lay it down and say, “OH! HEY! Look at that! I just discovered that thing isn’t worth pursuing!” so they can channel their precious reserves of mental, physical, and emotional strength into something better.
Those are the life skills I’m looking at building in my children, because I’m playing the long game here, which is this: I’m aiming for a world full of humans who are emotionally and mentally healthy. I’m aiming for a world full of confident humans who’ve fanned the flame of justice in their hearts. I’m aiming for a world full of humans who know they’re worthy of infinite love and worthy of respect and who will create kind spaces because they know what those look like. I’m aiming for a world full of humans who listen to their hearts, who trust their minds, who know right from wrong — which is the same as knowing love from not love — and who know how to build communities of other humans who do, too.
Now — who’s in?
Sending you love, friends, and waving in the dark, as always,
P.S. And sending EXTRA love to those of you in the path of Florence. You’re on my heart tonight.
P.P.S. I sent out our very first newsletter last week to those of you subscribed to the email list. I had an unreasonably good time writing it. If you want to never miss a post — and to get exclusive posts for email only — feel free to subscribe here. I’ll send you a horrible story about the day I peed my office. It’s the worst reason ever to join an email list. Do it.
P.P.P.S. Just reread this whole post, as one does when one edits one’s writing, and noticed I said “quick” public service announcement at the beginning. Bless my heart for thinking I could be quick. 😂😂😂 I really should know better.