Mulan adversity quote


Life’s not fair!

One of the standard lessons from every Mom is the failure of fairness. And Stephen Asma’s piece “Come on, be fair — the world’s a better place with inequality” embraces that failure…

  • “’It’s not fair, Dad!” This is my son’s favourite phrase. Last week alone I was told ‘it’s not fair’ that he has to practise the piano and it’s not fair that other kids get to play video games and (my favourite) it is not fair that classmates who are better than him at sport are more popular at school. When he grows up he will probably add some other complaints, such as ‘romantic life isn’t fair’ and ‘worklife isn’t fair’. Every parent has heard this f-word intoned ad nauseam by their negotiating offspring…Western schools tend to codify all this envy into an officially sanctioned, aggressive egalitarianism…Favouritism, however, is not the great evil that western culture pretends…Other elementary school policies, designed to protect self-esteem, foster the dogma of fairness. Sports and games have been modified so no one scores, or at least the score is not kept or tallied…Second, learning (in the worst-case scenario) that you fail at all sports is important as you claw your way towards some juvenile identity. Praising the tough love of ugly truths, the writer James Poniewozik quipped that ‘encouragement helps us reach for the stars; realism prevents us from pursuing a mid-life career change as an astronaut’.

One of my interpretations for this shunning of failure in schools is laziness. Not by the kids, but by the teachers. As someone who has been instructing children as a sports coach and Sunday school leader for many years, I appreciate the intensity of effort required to treat each student as an individual. To scrutinize them in order to find the strengths they do have, and give them praise and encouragement that they both deserve and is tailored to them. To support them without being patronizing with candid dialogue about their weaknesses and ways to overcome them. It is so much easier for a coach/teacher to just throw everyone in a race and declare everyone ‘a winner’. It may be easier, but it doesn’t build self-esteem (the usual justification) and it doesn’t grow the child. It also presupposes ‘fairness’ as ‘uniformity’ which it is not. It is really unfair to the fastest child to not get recognition with the only ribbon.

Today ushers in the Chinese Year of the Goat (perhaps a year of embracing failure since a “Goat” is often a symbol of failure at least in the West). The Chinese present a wholly different model of “fairness” in the classrooms…

  • “The contrast of our fairness system with the merit-based Chinese pre-school system is astounding…[I]n China, where collective criticism is par for the course — even for four-year-olds. At Daguan Elementary School in Kunming, this daily ordeal is called the ‘storyteller king’. Each pupil gets up and tells a story to the whole class and fellow pupils and teachers then dissect the offerings with brutal honesty. Western teachers who saw this exercise were horrified. But it is indicative of China’s merit-based culture, sculpted by centuries of Confucianism. The influence of Confucius has also made Chinese culture much more accepting of hierarchical favouritism, whether it is deserved by merit or not. Now we begin to see the positive aspects of unfairness. We have long recognised that merit-based rewards duly violate the more aggressive forms of egalitarianism, but we have forgotten about the deep ethics of favouritism. Your family and friends, for example, love you even when you do not ‘deserve’ it.”

Embrace the Goat in all of us.