Exploring What’s Fair at Home and Beyond
When we embody fairness, we receive what we need while making sure there’s enough for others.
Table of Contents
Preparation Guide (Optional)
Use these questions for personal reflection or journaling.
- What do you remember as being unfair in your family of origin? How do you feel about it now?
- How do you stand up for yourself when you feel you’ve been treated unfairly?
- Do you make room for your children to express their experiences of unfairness?
What the Wisdom Says
“I look upon all creatures equally; none are less dear to me and none more dear.”
— From the Bhagavad Gita (Hinduism)
“Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
— Amos 5:24 ESV (Judaism)
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
— Martin Luther King, Jr.
“The granaries are empty;
Yet there are those dressed in fineries
… Far indeed is this from the Way.”
— From the Tao Te Ching (Taoism)
Use these resources if you want to dive deeper as you prepare.
- “What Kids Really Mean When They Say ‘It’s Not Fair’” (4-min article) by Sheila Sims, public school teacher, suggests that kids sometimes say “that’s not fair!” because: 1. They don’t know what fairness is and could simply mean “that’s not what I want!” 2. They need guidance to see the big picture. 3. They’ve found that the phrase works to instill guilt in grownups so they get what they want. 4. The situation is, indeed, unfair. She recommends not simply saying, “life isn’t fair” (which is dismissive), not caving to all their demands, and not listing a bunch of reasons to convince them that the situation is actually fair. Instead, she says to get curious and dig deeper to find the root problem, to define fairness, and to have patience because young kids might be too developmentally immature to understand quite yet.
- “How Fairness Develops in Kids Around the World” (5-min article) from The Atlantic illustrates how kids grow into a healthy sense of fairness. It reads, “[Kids] start out with this very self-focused idea that they recognize unfairness when it’s unfair to me … It takes more years for different psychological processes to kick in before they can flip that, and say: What’s unfair to you is also unfair in general.”
- “Sibling Rivalry — All’s Fair in Love and Parenting…But What is Fair?” (3-min article) from Melbourne Child Psychology Services explores how parents might respond when children perceive unfair treatment when compared to siblings. “As it turns out,” it says, “it’s not about material gain or gratification, but rather about feeling that you have been unfairly treated in a certain situation.”
What the Experts Say
“In general, children are concerned that acts of distribution treat everyone with equal respect.”
— Jan Engelmann and Michael Tomasello, professors of psychology
Consider starting with a simple ritual that works for you: light a candle, meditate, pray, sing, etc.
Watch “How Kids Make Things Fair” (3-min video) by Oxfam, noting that the kids in the video use the British word for cookie (biscuit).
- Who do you think had the funniest reaction?
- Who do you think had the kindest reaction?
- If you were told that there was a kid who hadn’t ever had cookies before, what would you do?
- How would your reaction compare to theirs?
Optional Activity: Race!
- Find a space in your home or outside where you can have a race (e.g., run one lap around the house, do a leg race, etc.).
- Create a finish line using tape or another physical marker.
- Designate one child to decide where each person will stand to begin the race.
- Race to the finish line!
- For the designator: Why did you choose to place each person where you did for the race?
- For everyone: Was this a fair way to race?
If everyone is up for it, try it again to see if you can make the race as fair as possible, so everyone crosses the finish line at nearly the same time.
Optional Activity #2: Fill the Bowl!
Sit at the kitchen table and gather a small empty bowl for each person. Also gather a variety of measuring spoons/measuring cups or other kitchen utensils.
- Fill a large bowl with water. Place it in the middle of the table.
- Instruct everyone that they will be racing to see who can fill the empty bowls with water the fastest using an assigned kitchen tool. (You can also replace the water with tiny candies, sprinkles, whipped cream, etc.)
- Designate one person to assign each person a kitchen utensil to use during the race, but inform this person that they will have no choice in what tool they receive.
- Let everyone else vote on which remaining tool the designated chooser will use.
- Fill the bowls! First one to fill it wins.
- Was this game fair? Why or why not?
If everyone is up for it, try one more time where everyone gets the same utensil.
Polarity Practice: How can you find the middle way between standing up for yourself and giving to others?
Imagine you’ve been given the ability to decide how much money and power every segment of society has. You can make certain segments of people fabulously wealthy and others completely poor.
There’s only one catch:
You don’t get to choose which segment of society you belong to.
How would you arrange things?
This thought experiment from the philosopher John Rawls illustrates one way to think about fairness in the world. Watch “The Veil Of Ignorance” (2-min video) by Stephen Fry to learn about Rawls’s theory of justice.
- The narrator says that “behind the veil, we’d opt for a much fairer society than we now have” and that “there would be extensive freedom and fair equality of opportunity.” Do you agree? If so, why?
- What are the possible implications of this thought experiment?
- What is your blueprint for a just society?
John Rawls wrote, “The natural distribution is neither just nor unjust; nor is it unjust that persons are born into society at some particular position. These are simply natural facts. What is just and unjust is the way that institutions deal with these facts.”
- Can you think of an institution that doesn’t deal with the natural facts of life with justice?
- If you were in charge of the institution, what would you change?
The Ring of Gyges
Long ago, the philosopher Plato wrote a tale about a shepherd named Gyges (pronounced by some English speakers as “guy-guhs”).
It’s a tale that has influenced many stories over the years, including The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkein.
It goes like this:
One day the shepherd Gyges was out tending his flock when an earthquake struck and a cave opened up right in front of him. Curious, he descended into the cave’s opening where he discovered many strange things, including a golden ring. Entranced by the ring’s beauty, he took it and returned to the outside world.
That night Gyges attended his regular meeting with the other shepherds, where they each accounted for their sheep. As the other men talked amongst themselves, Gyges adjusted the ring in his hands. Then one of the shepherds made a comment about him as though he weren’t sitting right there, in the middle of them all. Another asked where he went off to. They looked all around, unable to see him.
Astonished, Gyges realized that the ring he’d found had a power — the power of invisibility. For the next several weeks, he tested the ring again and again, eventually learning that the ring enabled him to steal whatever he wanted without getting caught.
Gyges didn’t resist. He used his ring to get money and power, eventually stealing the entire kingdom, where he ruled not as a kind shepherd but as a tyrant.
- Plato believed that no one could resist the power of such a ring — that even a person who initially valued fairness would fall if they had such a ring. What do you think?
- If you had a ring that made you invisible, what would you do? Do you think you could stay fair?
Watch “Small Talk | Fairness | CBC Kids” (2-min video) to get a sense of what other kids say about fairness.
- Is there something you could do right now to make the world more fair for someone else? For yourself?
Watch “Who Has More Milk?” (2-min video) from Sesame Street to see a comedic take on fairness.
Optional Activity: Fairness Jar
- Find a jar or a box and decorate it.
- Whenever you see something fair or unfair in the week, draw or write it on a slip of paper to put it in the jar. For example, something fair might be, “Cal shared their toys with Aya.” Something unfair might be, “I didn’t get to go to the park because it was raining outside.”
- At the end of the week, read the slips of paper. Ask questions such as, “What could have made that situation more fair?” or “How did it feel when someone treated you with fairness?”
Take a moment to discuss fairness in your home, school, work, or world.
- What is one thing each of us can do to make our home more fair? Is there anyone who does most of the cooking, cleaning, or other work?
- Beyond our home, what can we do to make our community or world more fair? Are there people at school, work, or city who are less fortunate? What is one thing we can do to help these places feel more fair?
Optional Activity: Post-it Notes
Once you have discussed ways to improve fairness in your home, community, workplace, school and world, distribute a post-it note to each person.
- Ask each person to draw or write an idea that would improve fairness inside or outside of the home.
- Place these sticky notes somewhere everyone can see.
- Remove each sticky note as they are implemented or completed together.
Consider closing with a simple ritual: blow out the candle, meditate, pray, sing, etc.
Keep the Conversation Going
Look at this comic strip from Bill Watterson, creator of Calvin and Hobbes:
- Do you relate to Calvin or his dad (or neither or both)?
- Is this situation fair?
- Have you ever thought something wasn’t fair only to later realize that you weren’t looking at the situation quite right?
When you feel like things are unfair, one of the best things to do is to practice gratitude. You’ll often find that with just a bit of gratitude your life improves.
2. The Story of Emperor Nintoku
Here’s an old Shinto story:
An emperor named Nintoku lived a life of luxury in an elaborate and beautiful palace.
One day he looked out over the land and realized there was no smoke rising from the houses of the common people, which was a sign they were so poor they lacked fireplaces.
Struck by the thought of so many people living in poverty while he lived in a palace, he declared an end to all taxes for three years.
Soon enough, his palace fell into disrepair. Rain leaked through the roof and sunlight shone onto the floor.
At the end of the three years, the land was full of cooking and the people had enough money to build their wealth. This is why Nintoku is praised as a ruler.
- If you ruled over a kingdom, how would you rule?
- What would you do to make things fair?
- When you feel like things are unfair between you and your siblings or friends, what do you do?
3. Justice, from the Christian Tradition
Watch “Justice” (6-min video) from the Bible Project to see a traditional Christian perspective on justice.
- What does justice mean according to this reading of the Bible? (“Right relationships between people” and more specifically “seeking out vulnerable people who are being taken advantage of and helping them.”)
- And what is wickedness? (Mistreating another human, ignoring their dignity.)
- The video says that humans are “constantly redefining good and evil to our own advantage at the expense of others.” Have you seen any examples of that?
- What is something you can do to bring about justice?
4. The Trolley Problem (For Older Kids)
One of the most famous thought experiments about justice tells of a trolley speeding toward five people tied to the track.
In this thought experiment, you’re the driver and you have the choice to change tracks — but you can see that there is one person tied to the other track.
Watch the first 13 minutes of “Justice: Episode One” (55-min video) to see Harvard professor Michael Sandel lead a college course on justice. In the first 13 minutes, Sandel explores the trolley problem.
- Would you turn the wheel toward the other track or not?
Most people tend to say that they would because it’s better to save five people instead of one.
But Harvard professor Michael Sandel takes the whole thing one step further by inviting you to think of the possibility of you being in a position where you could push a very large man onto the track to slow the trolley down and save the five people.
- Would you push the man?
Most people tend to say they wouldn’t, which opens up a question about the initial principle of saving five people instead of one. After all, in both cases, you’re saving five people. So what’s the difference?
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