That’s not fair!

Anyone who works with children is familiar with the phrase, “that’s not fair.” As adults, we respond in many different ways, most of them offering only limited satisfaction to young minds. Sometimes we say that life isn’t fair (which is pretty dismissive, when you think about it), or that what is fair for one person isn’t fair for another (which is probably too sophisticated an idea for many children). At the heart of the concern is a need for clarity of expectations and consequences, as well as the need to be able to either control or predict at least some aspects of their environment.

This is one of the reasons we see children pushing and testing boundaries and limits – they are conducting natural experiments to determine the nature of their reality. The adults around them create those limits, and children, by necessity, have to explore in order to lay down the rules of engagement that are so often unclear, contradictory, or dynamically changing in ways they could never hope to understand. The more complex the world gets, the more challenging it is for children and adults to move through this completely natural process.

In this week’s Parsha, Emor, we read the famous line about an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Linked closely to Hammurabi’s code, the message is one of pure fairness — if you hurt someone, then you pay exactly the amount it cost that person. Of course life is never this clear, because restitution can rarely be a zero-sum game. When we read the following verse, we understand that our tradition also placed enormous value on clarity and fairness:

מִשְׁפַּ֤ט אֶחָד֙ יִהְיֶ֣ה לָכֶ֔ם כַּגֵּ֥ר כָּאֶזְרָ֖ח יִהְיֶ֑ה כִּ֛י אֲנִ֥י יְהוָ֖ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃

You shall have one standard for stranger and citizen alike: for I the LORD am your God.

Leviticus 24:22

Wouldn’t children love this? One standard? Parents and educators try hard to create this kind of clarity, but it doesn’t take long as a school administrator (or a lawyer or judge) to understand that letter and intent of rules can differ, and that circumstances matter. “He hit me,” can end up six different ways based on whether it was during an athletic game and unintentional, intentional while standing in line, who saw what, etc.

Because this is so inherently challenging, Responsive Classroom (an approach to behavior, conduct and discipline adopted at both Gesher and Fairfax County Public Schools) focuses less on specific consequences (though these exist), and more on the principles at work in determining appropriate outcomes.

Framed by 3 primary positive guidelines, adults and children alike can begin to internalize the idea that they are ultimately responsible for: themselves, their peers, and their environment. This approach is powerful because it takes the problem of powerlessness and throws it out the window – it tells children that they are the ones making the choices, and that all the adults expect is for them to learn how to be responsible citizens in our community. We don’t expect perfection – we know that children are built to test the limits of these expectations – and the system is set up so that children have the opportunity to restore justice when they (inevitably) step over a line.

As we continue to implement Responsive Classroom (RC) at Gesher, we look forward to sharing tools for parents to use at home, too, further building our partnership in educating our children.

This Shabbat, I encourage you to talk to your children about what they think you expect of them in your own household, and how they feel about it. Do you have a shared notion of what is fair?

Shabbat Shalom,