Recently, events around the world and at home have left many of us with a heavy heart. Shootings, alt-right marches, attacks on places of worship - it is deeply troubling to see such hatred and anger, surprising to the vast majority of us who simply cannot understand how you could feel that way towards another human being. Many people are wondering how such a thing could happen, how someone could become so angry, so full of hate, so violent. An equal number of people, searching for a solution, are quick to point the finger at gun control (definitely needs to change), at mental illness (definitely poorly understood and supported), at political divisiveness (clearly a problem) as the root of the problem.
But the bigger question is, and always will be, how? Not how do we stop this from happening again but rather how do we stop people from becoming so angry and hateful in the first place?
It seems that a common condition of being human is wanting things to be fair - getting your share of the proverbial pie is built in to our DNA apparently, a survival mechanism I'm sure. I cannot tell you (although if you teach primary or have young kids, I really don't need to) how many times a day something was not fair to somebody, somehow. Observing the majority of the situations unfold in my classroom, on the playground and in my own home, "it's not fair" had more to do with perception than reality; "it's not fair" stemmed from the assumption that someone was getting something bigger, better or belonging to me, regardless of what was actually needed in that situation (teaching wants vs needs is a whole other post). Take, for instance, the classic "it's not fair!" - one child gets a slightly larger serving at dinner. Often, the child yelling it's not fair has not actually stopped to consider whether or not they need more food; they are saying it simply because there is a perception that everyone should get the same amount. When they don't, the feelings behind "it's not fair" can fester and grow, particularly when it seems like your slice of the pie is slowly being picked at by others, leaving you with less and less.
But what if we could flip this narrative? What if, from a very young age, we taught children two simple things - 1) fair is not always equal and 2) there is power in asking why before deciding something is not fair?
Fair is not always equal
For generations, we have been raised with the belief that fair means everyone getting the same thing, which is both impossible and a bit ridiculous. No two people are the same thus no two people will ever have the same wants and needs. What if our kids grew up knowing this to be true? What if they grew up knowing that there was more than enough to go around? That as long as they are healthy, happy and safe, they can share this abundance with others so that everyone can feel healthy, happy and safe...and that healthy, happy and safe looks and feels different for different people. That it is not only about how much we have but how much we have to give.
As educators, we have the power, at least to a certain extent, to help grant this gift of enough, of fair is not always equal. By modelling, in our classrooms and our schools, that everyone and anyone can access all tools and supports, without prejudice or judgment, we begin to help students decide what is enough for them and to see that others' needs are different. When we normalize support, when we offer it to everyone but don't require anyone to take it, we are teaching students that everyone may need some support to be successful; that there is no shame in needing help, no shame in taking a slightly different slice of the pie. Without normalizing support, without offering it to anyone without the slightest hint of judgement, we continually reinforce the notion that fair should be equal but it isn't, that someone else is taking from my slice of the pie.
The power of asking "why"
We can help students move towards understanding the idea that fair isn't always equal by encouraging them to ask one simple question before declaring "it's not fair!". What if, every time a student felt slighted, felt that something was unjust, they simply asked "why"?
Jimmy (sees Suzie holding his pencil) - "Why did you take my pencil?"
Suzie - "Ummm...sorry, I didn't realize it was your pencil and I needed one."
Suzie (running for the swings just as Jimmy runs for the swings too) - "Why did you take my swing?"
Jimmy - "Oh.....yeah. That wasn't very nice, was it? Here, you can have it."
It is nearly impossible for kids, especially young ones, to lie in the face of this question. "Why" circumvents the immediate defensive response we have when someone calls us on our questionable behaviour - think "Hey! You took my pencil!" with it's immediate response "No I didn't!" Why gives us time to reflect on what we did without feeling defensive. 90% of the time, asking "why" prevents further conflict and allows children to solve problems for themselves. Using this in my classroom last year was a game changer - it reduced tattling and empowered students to seek simple, non-confrontational solutions to their problems. It allowed them a little window into the thinking of their classmates - I cannot tell you the number of times the first situation above was immediately followed up by a neighbouring child offering up a pencil that they had in their desk. Asking why helped my students to develop empathy in ways that no lesson from the teacher ever will.
Imagine how the world would change if this generation of kids grows up knowing that fair is not always equal? Knowing that different people need different things to be healthy, happy and safe? What if they knew that asking a simple question like "Why?" de-escalated situations, provided a window into the wants and needs of others and opened the door to collaborative problem-solving opportunities. As educators, as parents, we have the power to make this happen. Tomorrow, as you go about your day, look for opportunities to ask why, look for opportunities to encourage children to ask why. You just might change the world.
I'm Bryn, teacher, mom, book lover, athlete. I am passionate about living life with my family, teaching and learning something new all the time. I hope you find something that speaks to you here on my blog and would love to hear from you too!