Ana Veciana-Suarez: When being fair is really not, and other life lessons

The argument that night had to do with my lap. A comfortable, welcoming lap to be sure, but not one so special as to instigate such a battle.

Yet, there I was, babysitting my eldest son’s three daughters, and the tears were flowing, the sobs were heaving and the accusations were flying. I was losing control of the situation. Even the cat had sought refuge outdoors.

The issue: Who was going to sit on my lap first, and for how long, while we read a bedtime story. No matter what I suggested, one of them objected. The only thing the three could agree on was that, doggone it, whatever their place in line, it was unfair.

“Get over it!” I finally shrieked, and decided, with the powers vested in me as an adult, to offer them my lap in reverse birth order. But even this Solomon-like decision proved tricky because it elicited the accusation, somewhat true, that the almost-3-year-old tends to get favored treatment because she’s the youngest. Not to mention that the oldest two are identical twins.

Sound familiar?

Among the many challenges of parenting, one of the most difficult is achieving that elusive thing called fairness. And the difficulty is not just in the decisions. It’s in controlling the visceral reaction — sweaty palms, palpitating heart, shallow breathing, doubting mind — prompted by the annoying whine: “But that’s not fair! You let Frankie [fill in the blank].” I could write a book, or at least a long essay, enumerating the many accusations I, as a mother and now a grandmother, have faced for perceived bias.

I’ve been unfair about my time. My money. My belongings. My reprimands. My praise. My attention. My patience. Really, is there anything I have ladled out fair and square? Apparently nada.

The concept of fairness is so hard to define, so dependent on circumstances, that after five children and more than three decades of parenting, I’ve concluded that no one can or should be fair all the time. To try is to set oneself up for failure.

Another thing: Fairness is not about being equal but about being equitable. Try to explain that to a child, grown or otherwise, who thinks fairness means sameness, as if parental decisions can be distilled into a mathematical equation where A always equals B, no matter the need, the age, the situation.

Long before I knew better, I figured that once I was a grandparent this issue of fairness would pop up only in the rear-view mirror, as a funny anecdote or a moral lesson. Wrong: Comparisons are as inevitable among cousins as they are between siblings. My lap is just one of the many sources of contention. So are the tricycles, the red wagon, the big, plastic blocks, the dollhouse.

But enough.

With the blessing of grandchildren comes the possibility of redemption. Having learned a thing or two about the complexities of family relationships, about a child’s ability to zero in on bias, I can impart a better lesson, one based firmly on reality.

Life, dear kiddies, is unfair. So get over it and get on with it.