One of the most cherished times of the day is driving my teenage daughter to school. She is at her best in the mornings. Her brain cells are firing and she is curious about the world. This morning her curiosity was centered on driving. Some of her friends have started driver’s education. She asked if I was scared when I took my driving test. Oddly, I could not remember taking the test, but her question invoked a memory with strong emotions attached to it. That is how memories generally work. The stronger the emotions tied to the memory, the more vividly we remember the moment.
Rather than remembering my 16th birthday, my brain immediately went to my younger brother’s 16th birthday. I woke as I would on any other day. I dressed while Mom was in the kitchen cooking breakfast. My brother usually straggled in the mornings, but not this morning. I heard his voice gradually raising in response to each sentence my mother spoke. Eventually, this turned into an all-out yelling match.
I descended from my room prepared to defend my brother. My mom had a knack for driving us all crazy on our birthdays. She had her own expectations about what made a birthday special. Chuck and I were not morning people and generally did not eat breakfast until the first break at school. She always wanted us to get up early on our birthday, so she could cook us a special breakfast. She then made it impossible to eat while she piled us with gifts that she excitedly encouraged us to open quickly, so we would not be late to school. By the time we finished this process, she had so worn us out that we just felt like going back to bed and hiding under the covers. My intent was to save my brother from this madness on his 16th birthday.
By the time I got there the ruckus had raised to a level that provoked an early visit to the kitchen by our step-father. His typical MO was to sit back quietly while my mom dictated whatever motherly idea she was imposing. He rarely, if ever, spoke up in front of us when he disagreed with her. Usually he waited until they were alone to discuss matters. We would later get a visit from Mom when we were alone in our bedroom. She would explain that after she cooled down and thought about things, she had been wrong. We knew what really went down behind their closed doors, but we never let on. We simply hugged it out and let bygones be bygones.
But on this day, Chuck’s face was blood red and Mom was overtly adamant. As I entered, Chuck immediately turned to me saying, “Lora, tell her she is being unfair.” Apparently, Chuck was in top form on this special morning. He had been up all night waiting with great anticipation for Mom to take him to the DMV first thing in the morning. To his disappointment she had no intentions of doing this at all, and felt that it should be completely obvious to us all why it had to be this way.
When I turned 16 I was a terrible driver. This was mostly due to the fact that I was a terrified driver. Shortly before I was to begin driver’s education Mom began taking me to the school parking lot to teach me basic vehicle operation. Nothing fancy went on there, so I was totally at the mercy of my driver’s education teacher, Mr. Tobin, to teach me all that there was to know about driving. I am pretty sure I made him consider early retirement on more than a few occasions. While I had my learner’s permit my mom and step-father often had to force me to drive. When my 16th birthday rolled around I was clearly not ready to be on my own in a vehicle. The decision was made to make me wait at least 6 months, or until I improved enough for everyone to be comfortable with me on the road. I was almost relieved at this decision.
Mom’s stance on Chuck’s birthday was that it was only fair that he had to wait 6 months, because I did. No matter what logical argument Chuck presented her only response was to say, “But it is not fair to Lora.” Chuck could not see what my terrible driving had to do with him getting his license. Upon hearing this explanation, our step-father surprisingly spoke up right there in the kitchen in front of us. He felt that maybe we needed to look at this calmly. If we talked about it, we may see that parenting fairnly meant Chuck should wait.
I wasted no time in my response. My usual response from about the age of 13 until I moved out after high school seemed the most appropriate for this occasion. I vehemently said, “That’s just stupid and it makes no sense at all.” Chuck was right. How on earth could it be parenting fairly by punishing Chuck for my poor driving? His circumstances were completely different than mine. My grandparents owned land that stretched down a dirty road in the mountains of North Carolina. We only ate what we grew, so most of that land was covered in small fields of crops. From the time a boy turned 12 in our family, he began driving tractors and trucks to help in the fields. Chuck was perfectly capable of driving without supervision. At that point he was a much better driver than I.
When I was done they asked if I were sure that I did not feel slighted by Chuck being allowed to get his license. At the time I did not appreciate their concern for my feelings. I was perturbed that yet another birthday went down with a showdown over stupidity. I thought it was highly inconsiderate of Chuck to put my possible negative feelings before his proven ability to drive. He had earned his right and it should not be withheld simply because I did not earn my right within the same timeframe. If this were about parenting fairly, it seemed obvious to me that if it hurt my feelings, then my parents needed to take the opportunity to teach me about earning what you get.
The reason this memory has always stuck with me is that it was the day I realized what fairness really is. As I told Mom that day, her first line of defense when we complained was to tell us that life is not fair, and we better get used to it now. She was absolutely right. Life is not fair, so why was she all of a sudden convinced that parenting fairly meant Chuck got equal punishment for a rule he did not break.
The confusion arises from understanding the difference between equality and fairness. When you are raising more than one child in a household, it is important that each child is equal to the others. This could mean that when children are young rules are best applied across the board. It may be the only way that you can prevent every little thing from turning into “she gets to do it, why can’t I.” But as children grow, a divide arises between the developmental skills of each child. There comes a time when what is good for one child will not be the same for all the children. At this point, fairness becomes an additional point that has to be added to the equality equation.
Just because all children in a home are equal, does not mean that it is fair to have the same rules for everyone. Equality guarantees the same respect for everyone in the home. Fairness means through respect the needs and abilities of each child are recognized and allowed to develop at the appropriate pace for that child. When the time comes for an older child to be allowed to do things that younger children are not, then the time has also come to teach younger children to understand that equality and fairness is not the same thing. Children are perfectly capable of understanding that there is a difference in abilities and their time will come.
In the case of the driver’s license, had our parents held firm to making my brother wait, they would have been holding him back from reaching his greatest potential. In our case, the tables were turned a bit, with the younger child being held back, because the older child was not at the same level of achievement when they were younger. More often, we see parents holding back older children, because their younger siblings are not yet capable of doing the same activities.
When a child who is old enough to spend the night at a friend’s house, but is not allowed to do so because a younger sibling is not ready for that step, fairness is not achieved. Being fair to the oldest child would mean allowing that child to develop at his own pace. Not allowing him to participate in activities for which he is developmentally ready is actually holding him back and limiting his potential. He will be out of the home first. He needs to learn to operate in this world at his pace. Otherwise, he is held back by how ever many years there is between the younger siblings. If an older child has to wait 2, 3, or even more years to have a sleepover simply because a younger sibling is not ready, then the older child is robbed of that many years of his development.
Also, the younger siblings do not learn equality and fairness in a way that applies in adulthood. If they learn as a child that they have the same rights as their older sibling, then how can we expect them to understand in adulthood that co-workers do not all get the same amount of vacation, pay, or benefits. There are some things that must be earned through time, dedication, and hard work. While my brother was younger, he had put in more time, dedication, and hard work to learn to drive than I had at the same point in my life. He earned his right to drive, and that is what fairness really means.