Melissa called and said, “My son, Alex, accidentally had a pocketknife at school, and when they found it, they threw him off the football team. This is so unfair, and I don’t know what to do about it.”
“How old is Alex?” I asked.
“Does he have regular, assigned chores at home that you hold him accountable for?”
“No, but—” she began with a defensive, angry tone.
“What are his grades like in school?”
“No, I mean exactly. What are the letter grades he gets?”
There was a pause before Melissa said, “Cs and Ds.”
“Has he ever been labeled by intelligence or other tests as intellectually challenged or learning disabled?”
“Do you monitor his homework every day?”
“Well . . .”
“Which means that no, you don’t. Does he sometimes speak disrespectfully to you?”
“All the time, but I yell at him and tell him to stop.”
“So let me summarize what I just learned in less than two minutes. Alex has no chores at home, so he thinks he’s entitled to all the privileges of living in a family that provides for him, while he does nothing to contribute to the family. You taught him to feel entitled and not accountable. He doesn’t study and gets bad grades, but you don’t hold him accountable for that either. He speaks disrespectfully to you a lot, and sure, you yell at him, but you don’t do what it takes to stop that behavior.
"Again, he thinks he can do whatever he wants and get away with it. So, you’ve taught him over his entire life that he has no responsibility for his behavior. Then he takes a knife to school, which was NOT an accident, by the way, and why did he do that? Because you have taught him that he can do whatever he wants and get away with anything he wants. Then he was caught breaking a very clear and strict rule at school, and somebody finally held him accountable.
"So no, he was not treated unfairly. Actually, for the first time in a long time, he was required to experience the consequence of the behavior HE chose, so what happened was the very definition of fair. Up to this point, you haven’t held him accountable, and THAT is not fair.”
It’s fair—or just, a synonym—when we experience the consequences of our own choices, and if we don’t teach our children that definition of fairness, they’ll spend their lives feeling entitled or victimized, or both, which will guarantee them decades of misery and blaming.
If we don’t teach our children what true fairness is, the world will teach them, and that will result in their being fired from their jobs by bosses who treat their employees fairly, losing relationships with partners who want some fairness of their own, and often being disciplined by the criminal justice system.
The time to teach our children responsibility, accountability, and fairness is now.