Facing Unfairness

Dear Parents,

You have witnessed your preschooler reacting to unfairness. This started even before she could talk. At first, when she felt things were unfair, her response could range from silent withdrawal to noisy tantrums. While that may still be the case, she is also better able to use words to express frustration and adjust or bargain to a fairer position for herself and others. Across cultures, children spot unfairness and react to it at a young age. When scientists tested the typical child in different cultures, they found that children were willing to give up a treat for themselves if another child was short-changed.

Over time, children observe their peers, family members and strangers, gaining privileges, while other individuals and groups are subjected to subtle forms of aversion, or even outright hatred. They watch and learn. This treatment of others, as children experience and internalize each event, when unexplained and uncorrected, can lead to two different very different results over time. They may develop a victim or a monster mentality.

The victim identifies with the abused group. He feels that he deserves ill treatment because of what he is. He is full of self-hate and sees no way out. He condones ill treatment of others like himself, even participates in it in order to keep others of his group safe. The other extreme, the monster, is full of self-hate and fear. He is terrified of being identified as one of the “others.” He constantly needs to demonstrate his not belonging to a perceived inferior group by his willingness to abuse others, either subtly or overtly. With enough self-hate and fear, this person becomes capable of acts such as mocking the disabled, setting homeless persons on fire, killing prostitutes, and leading neighbors to gas chambers.

Heavy stuff. So, what is a parent to do? Start with yourself by examining how you treat others. Do you model respect for people different from you? One doesn’t have to agree with some else’s political party, life choices, or religion to respect that they are a human being deserving respect. You can pass on your own family culture without passing on hate. Second, challenge your family and friends when they disrespect others. Third, introduce your child to the differences, the wide and wonderful variety among people, through reading books with stories and pictures of others, widening your social circle to include others, and by visiting cultural events hosted by other groups.

Your child is already noting unfairness, rudeness, racism, bigotry, and fear-fueled hate. Guard against him becoming the victim or growing into the monster. Spend time teaching your child your values, talk about your family’s culture, your religion. If you don’t teach your child, who will? Next, let your child experience that there many differences among people and that your family can respect the differences, can value the humanness of others without harming one’s own identity. Learning this now will prepare your child to work well with others across the neighborhood and across the world.

Evelyn Satterlee, M.Ed.