As a mom of three boys, I often hear the phrase, “Mom, that’s not fair!” My middle son especially has his antennae tuned to issues of fairness. Having been a mom for nearly sixteen years, I’ve had a bit of time to try out a few different ways of dealing with this. Sympathy hasn’t helped much. Trying to make life fair for them certainly is impossible. Telling them “Life just isn’t fair!” has about the same effect as telling a monkey that bananas grow on trees. They intuitively understand this and are frustrated with it. To be honest, I know it and I’m frustrated with it as well Life is unfair!
Recently, I switched tactics. While my boys still aren’t too impressed “in the moment”, it helps more than anything else I’ve tried. Here is typical scenario – my son is completely overwhelmed by the amount of dishes he has to wash. After procrastination efforts involving laying on the sofa and cuddling the dog, he finally walks out to the kitchen. Upon looking at the sink his head immediately lands in his arms on the breakfast bar and he wails in dismay, “Mom, it’s not fair…there are too many dishes!” I say, “I know. It is so not fair. Do you know how many kids didn’t get to eat breakfast this morning? And how many kids had no home to sleep in last night? These dishes mean that you are privileged.” He is still unimpressed. But recently, every time I hear the complaint of life not being fair, I agree and remind my sons of stories of incredible unfairness…REAL stories.
You see, my kids have not had a very normal life. The eldest two were born in Bangladesh, at a rural mission hospital, surrounded by rice paddies. They spent their early years surrounded by beautiful, Bangladeshi faces and were accustomed to having their cheeks pinched and being loved on by total strangers. “Normal” for them was so much different from other American kids. “Normal” was a rickshaw ride to the market, a cup of tea with a visitor, palm trees and fresh mangoes, the persistent smell of curry mingling with the cacophony of hawkers and beggars on the street. “Normal” were the honking horns and traffic jams, sitting in a suffocating auto-rickshaw, surrounded by beggars.
“Alien” were the periods of time spent in the U.S. where everyone seemed to own their own car, live in their own big houses, and eat their own bland food such as mashed potatoes. Later, after my third son was born, the five of us returned to this noisy, bustling, warm and friendly country.
As our sons grew older “normal” became a one-two hour bus ride to school every morning to , study alongside kids from all over the world. At lunch they would eat their peanut butter and jelly sandwiches next kids devouring sushi and bowls of rice. “Normal” was grabbing mango bars on the way out of the apartment to share with the beggars we knew would surround us as we made our way through the city. “Normal” was seeing abject poverty every day; beggars lying on the sidewalk or hobbling in the stopped traffic, naked babies on tired mothers’ hips, and mobs of kids who forgot to beg if they were shown dignity, whose eyes would sparkle when asked their name. Our family collected a lifetime of stories during those years. Stories that continue to shape our family’s story.
As a woman, I had the unique privilege of sitting with victims of human trafficking and hearing their stories, stories that still make me weep today. I also had the privilege of working alongside women who had endured abuse and betrayal, who went to bed hungry so their kids could eat, yet who could smile through the pain and keep going. These stories of unfairness are stories that have shaped my life.
We have been back in the US for a few years now. My boys have gotten used to another “normal” that makes me uneasy at times. This normal includes an X-Box, computers and iPods. They sometimes get upset when I don’t allow unlimited electronic time like their friends supposedly get. During the school year, they have a set amount of time they get to play after homework is finished. During summer vacation, they earn it. To earn time they read books, exercise, and do chores in exchange for video game “tokens”. This is a source of great contention and many arguments, even though I tell them they can play as much as they want as long as they earn it.
In a recent argument, I asked my son to do some research to find out how many kids have electricity in their homes. It seemed safe to assume that people without electricity do not have unlimited video game time, let alone a device to play on. He came back the next night with some impressive figures to share with the rest of our family. He discovered that 1 in 4 people do not have electricity (dosomething.org). He then went above and beyond what I had asked and discovered that the wealth of 41 of the world’s poorest countries (a total of 567 million people) have less than the combined wealth of the 7 richest people in the world (globalissues.org).
I asked him how he felt after he shared those statistics with our family. “Wealthy…EXTREMELY wealthy!” he said, and my soul smiled. I don’t want him to ever stop sensing unfairness and injustice. I want to help him shift the focus from the unfairness he experiences, to a much broader view that seeks to bring fairness and justice to those who have it so much worse.
An example of incredible unfairness in our world is modern day slavery that exists throughout the world. There are more slaves today than at any other time in human history, and yet it has never been more ignored. It’s not enough to teach our kids about history. We are creating history and we have this amazing opportunity to teach our kids that they really can change the world they live in.
I want my sons to know that true wealth exists in the heart and has nothing to do with the latest smart phone or brand of shoes. I want them to know that the privileges they take for granted are not normal for most people. I want them to know that the child who worked in the cocoa plantation that produced the chocolate in their after school treats will most likely never attend school. I want them to know that the father who assembled the shoes they are wearing, may barely be able to feed his family. I want them to know that the young woman who sewed their clothes, may be working for pennies and living in a slum just so that she can send money back to her village for her children to survive. We can work together to create a new “normal” for our kids. Do we have the courage to connect them to the stories and the people behind the products we use every day?
In a land of freedom and abundance, we cradle the next generation in our arms; a generation that could turn the tide against modern day slavery. I don’t know about you, but I will keep agreeing with my kids that life is not fair, and can’t wait to see what they will do about it.