What is “fair?”



Have you ever tried to explain a sunset to someone who has never seen one? How about the ocean? Not easy. Even more difficult, how do you think it must be for them to understand or comprehend? I think of these examples when I think of poverty. Trying to describe what it is like to live in poverty, to someone who has never experienced it first hand, is impossible. The truth is, they may intellectually understand, but they can never truly comprehend the reality. It’s just too difficult. But what about the concept of fairness? Is it possible that some students have a similar experience understanding fairness? Not to equate fairness with poverty, but the point being, it is a difficult concept to comprehend without the first hand experience. So what is fair?

School may be the first time some children are ever exposed to the ideas of fairness. To them, life has never been fair. In schools, adults try to treat all students fairly. Many focus on students not getting anything they “don’t deserve.” But what about students that have had a lot of negative experiences they don’t deserve? Have you ever had a family member killed? Have you ever been exposed to abuse, neglect, drugs or violence as a child? Not to mention many other traumas. The reality is, many of our students have. Let’s be careful about assuming children understand fairness as adults see it in schools. Some kids have never been experienced fairness. Life has never been fair. Yet in school, we implement the concept of fairness in discipline policies, and many other things we do, without a second thought.

But what if we sometimes choose to approach fairness in a different way? What if we gave to, and forgave students who “don’t deserve it?” What if we treat them “unfairly” in a positive way. I have taken this approach with some students in my career. Students who don’t always follow the rules. Students who, by traditional standards, “don’t deserve” anything positive. I take them to the gym to play basketball, hit a punching bag, or throw a baseball. I’ve made sure field trips have been paid for, or they had clean clothing. Why? Because most likely, no one has ever treated them this way. When questioned about whether or not doing this is fair, I have asked: “Is it fair they don’t have a father? Is it fair they have experienced abuse? It it fair they live in poverty?” I think, “Fair? Don’t talk to me about fair!” Life has never been fair for many of these kids, in a negative way. Why must if be “fair” on the positive side? Is there any real harm in this? What is “fair?”