If you asked me to recall the moment in my childhood when I realized life was unfair, I’d have to point to The Wishbone Incident.
Growing up, whenever my family had roast chicken for dinner, my siblings and I eagerly anticipated the post-meal tradition of breaking apart the wishbone, a forked bone that connects the bird’s two clavicles. This ritual dates back to ancient Europe, where people believed that whoever came away with the larger piece of the wishbone would enjoy good luck and have wishes granted.
In our house, this ritual involved carefully removing the little bone and painstakingly drying it out before the two chosen contenders each grasped a side and then yanked the bone apart. On one such occasion, I was about eight years old and my younger brother and I were about to battle it out. The stakes were high: I was adamant that I had to win, especially since, as the victor, I figured I would finally receive the Sweet Secrets Dream House that I’d coveted for months. Plus, my brother didn’t seem to even really care about the silly old wishbone, anyway, so losing wouldn’t crush his spirit as it would mine. Heck, I was the older, wiser and clearly the infinitely better behaved child, in my expert opinion. I deserved to win.
My dad counted us down. “One, two, three—GO!” The bone snapped in half, but I saw to my horror that my brother was holding the bigger piece. My eyes widened and I stared in disbelief for a moment before bursting into tears. I remained inconsolable for several minutes, and I should note that my parents also managed to capture the whole scene on video.
“It’s…not…fair!” I sobbed, my chest heaving, my breathing coming in uneven gasps. My parents sighed, pointed out how silly I looked and threatened to show the video to my future spouse. Their efforts to curb my hysterics made no difference—I was officially devastated. But I learned something that stuck with me:
Life isn’t always fair.
Fast forward a few decades. Perhaps it’s my subconscious mind trying to allay the injustice of the wishbone incident, or maybe it’s a general shift in parenting attitudes from my folks’ generation to mine, but I’ve noticed that I make a conscious effort to preserve a sense of fairness and equity amongst my children.
In some ways, I think this is a positive thing. If we are picking a movie or choosing a place to visit as a family, I make sure to give each of my kids an equally weighted vote, and we find a way to meet everyone’s needs. This shows my children that in a family, we respect and consider each other’s feelings and opinions.
But in other ways, it’s tiresome and frustrating. If one child gets a toy or treat—however small—my husband and I both know there will be mayhem unless the other sibling also receives something. It doesn’t matter if the “toy” is a cheap trinket from the dentist’s office that no one will play with anyway. In my kids’ eyes, it means only: “You got something and I didn’t. NO FAIR!” So in these cases, I take the path of least resistance: I make sure that child #2 gets something too. Similarly, if one child has a play date with a friend, I’m usually ready to do something special for the other child so she doesn’t feel left out.
But in the “real world,” life isn’t fair. You know it. I know it. But my kids? They have no clue.
Sometimes I wonder if I’m doing my children a disservice by insulating them from these minor disappointments, because I know they’ll ultimately encounter much worse scenarios out in the world. Let’s face it: the real world isn’t preschool. Sometimes that kid gets more crayons than you do, or your co-worker gets the raise or promotion you deserved, or your best friend dumps you for no reason. Sadly, there’s no magical fairy godmother (or parent, or teacher) to wave a wand and set things right. If you want something fixed, you need to be prepared to stand up for yourself. And sometimes, the “solution” is simply learning to accept a less than ideal situation. You may feel bummed, but you still know you’ll be okay.
Maybe I need to develop some sort of “toughening up” boot camp for my kids. I’d call it: “Of Wishbones and Other Injustices: How to Cope.” I’d certainly have plenty of material to work with.
But perhaps a better method would be to simply let more things slide in our day-to-day lives, so that my kids have more opportunities to deal with the fact that life isn’t perfect. In this way, I can help my kids realize over time that while the world isn’t always fair, it’s still beautiful and worthwhile, with all of its messiness and uneven edges.
And if one of my kids ever loses a wishbone battle, I’ll surely have some comforting words and a sympathetic ear, but I (probably) won’t capture it on video.