Oftentimes as we grow older and become parents, we find ourselves repeating the things that our own parents have said to us. You know – those sayings that, as a kid, you promised yourself you would never use when you became a parent. Much like God’s blessings and curses travel from generation to generation, so too do our parents quips and sayings.
One of my father’s mantras when we were younger was, “Life’s not fair.” My father’s usage was generally in response to the idea that one of the children in my family (I have three brothers) got something that the rest of us felt that we deserved as well. To a chorus of “That’s not fair! Why did he…? What about me…?,” he would calmly answer, “life’s not fair.” It didn’t make much sense to me as a kid, but I now find myself repeating it frequently to my own kids. As I have grown older, and hopefully a little bit wiser, I have come to appreciate the simple truth of that statement.
Fairness has become the battle cry of our society. When something isn’t fair, it is viewed as inherently wrong or even evil. We have gone from a culture and society here in the United States which was built on the idea of equal opportunity and “evolved” into a culture that expects equal outcome. Kids do not fail, everyone gets a trophy, and people bring presents to a birthday party for the other kids in the family because they don’t want them to feel left out. We live in a culture that demands fairness at all times and in all respects.
The problem is – fairness is NOT a biblical concept. The God we serve is a God of justice, but nowhere in the Bible does it indicate that he is “fair.” Indeed, the idea of fair is a very human concept. The Bible never attributes the idea of fairness to God. My search of the Bible reveals only three instances in which the word fair, meaning equal or same, is used, and each time it is terms of how humans should treat other people fairly. In Deuteronomy the Israelites are commanded to use a fair weight (Deut 25:15). In 2 Corinthians, Paul explains that it is fair for the people to supply the needs of those who have less that at some point they could do the same (2 Cor 8:13-14). And, in Colossians, Paul instructs masters to treat their slaves fairly. (Col 4:1). In all of these instances, God was not calling for equal treatment, but merely that we would follow the Golden rule to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. God does not seek to be fair. There are different levels of rewards in heaven. Jesus treated different groups of people differently in terms of access to him during his time her on Earth. And, the parable of the workers hired at different times during the day but paid the same wages reminds us that he gives us all the same grace regardless of timing or efforts or merit. The fact of the matter is that we have done nothing to merit the grace of God given to us in the redemption of our souls through the death and resurrection of Christ, and if God were interested in being fair, we would all be condemned rather than redeemed through Christ.
So, what is the problem fairness? What’s wrong with being fair? In both parenting and other leadership positions, we often find ourselves paralyzed by the fear of not being fair. As parents, we feel like we must treat all of our kids equally. As children’s ministry workers, we are afraid to dish out consequences or rewards as deserved for fear that they will not be perceived as fair to the kids in our ministries, or worse yet – their parents. Let’s look first at the problem from the standpoint of parenting and secondly from the standpoint of children’s ministry. Let’s ask, what’s the problem with being fair?
I have four kids, and one of the things that constantly and consistently amazes me most is how different they are from one another. The differences in personality and likes and dislikes often leaves me wondering how they could possibly share the same DNA. Despite the differences though, I often find myself falling into the trap of trying to ensure that I treat them all equally. Now, don’t misunderstand me. There are some things that must be equal in parenting. We must love all of our kids equally and unconditionally. We must provide for their needs, and we cannot play favorites. Beyond those basics though, our goal as parents should not be fairness when it comes to raising our kids. When we strive too hard to be “fair” we end up teaching our kids that they deserve the same treatment as their siblings. We brew in them a sense of entitlement, a lack of contentment and an inability to rejoice in the happiness of others.
The same problems can easily arise in children’s ministry when we allow ourselves to be consumed with fairness and equity rather than focusing on our true mission to teach kids about Jesus. I know from personal experience with our discipline system that it easy to render the whole system ineffective in the interest of fairness. Allow me to explain. We pass out three arm bands at the beginning of each class. The kids lose an arm band when they do not follow the rules of the classroom. For each arm band left at the end of service, they get a piece of candy. For the first several months we used the system, the teachers in our room (including myself) were reluctant to take all three arm bands because it didn’t seem fair that some kids would get candy and others would get none. The kids picked up on this as well, and it left the whole structure of the discipline system rendered useless because they kids knew they were going to get some candy regardless of how they acted. It wasn’t until we got past that inherent need for fairness and actually began to take all the bracelets that the kids respected the discipline system and began to follow rules.
How do we respond? What should we teach kids about being fair? I recently heard Andy Stanley explain that his kids hear him say all the time that fairness ended in the Garden of Eden. I like that concept. He also explained that this idea of fairness is frequently used as an excuse not to do anything for anybody because we can not do it for everybody. The world we live in today is not fair and kids should not have any expectation that it will be fair. When kids come to expect “fair,” it inevitably leads to a sense of entitlement. As a parent, do special things for just one kid at a time. Bless all of your kids eventually and evenly, but don’t feel like you have to bless them all at the same time. Require your kids to do things that might seem unfair to them. Generally in my family, the kid who makes the mess is asked to clean it up, but occasionally I intentionally have them clean up after one of their siblings just to remind them that they are not entitled to “fairness.”
I know of a Children’s Pastor who announces at the beginning of every service that things are not fair in his children’s ministry. I think we should make every effort to include kids in skits and giveaways and everything else we do in children’s ministry. That said, I do not keep a written list of who has done what or participated in what activity. I want the kids to understand that, while they will get a chance to participate, my role is not to ensure that everything is handed out fairly. Likewise, on Wednesday nights when I lead our AWANA game time, there is always some grumbling about how the teams, or the game, or the rules are not fair to some group of players. In those moments, I explain that we are there to have fun, but that doesn’t always mean that things are going to be fair. I will stack the deck against certain teams at times to make sure that they don’t win every week. They never think that is fair, but we always end up having fun.
So, what is your story? Do you fall victim to the pressure to be “fair?” What negative side effects have you seen from striving to be “fair?” How do you talk to your kids about the concept? What practical steps can you take to help your kids avoid falling into the rut that says “life should treat me fair?”