Children Can Learn to Treat Each Other Fairly

Maria Sanchez was so excited about her cooperation project that she woke up before the alarm went off. No need to punch the snooze button this Monday morning. She bounced out of bed and started the coffee to brew. It didn't even bother her that she had to cut her shower short to turn off the buzzer on the alarm clock.

Her assignment to her class, the one about being nice to someone you don't know, or don't like very much was a huge success. The students seemed to get the idea that being nice to someone didn't mean the same thing as liking someone, or agreeing with someone. She thought about last week's teachable moment, the day Sara forgot her lunch and Tyrone offered to share half of his sandwich with her.

The interesting thing about that act of kindness was that Tyrone is the boy who always abstains from saying the "under God" part of the pledge and Sara is the girl who distributes religiously oriented cards to her classmates. When Sara offered to pay Tyrone two dollars for half of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, Tyrone said, "No, thank you. You don't need to pay for it." Sara said a simple, "Thank you, and if you forget your lunch sometime, I'll share mine with you."

Maria was glad her students understood that being nice needed to be reciprocated, and she wrote "Be Nice Back" on the chalkboard. She was however ecstatic that they got the part about reciprocity being of like kind and degree. If they're getting it about being nice, maybe they can learn how to stand up for themselves without upping the ante. Maria was hopeful that her students could learn to mediate minor squabbles on their own. Realizing however that she was in uncharted waters, she cautioned herself to go slow.

Today Maria planned to discuss Janine's question from last week, "why not just be nice all the time"? She arrived in her classroom a full half-hour before her fifth grade students were due. Of course, she'd already given the question a lot of thought, but still, she was a bit nervous. On the surface, being nice all the time seems like the best thing to do. Still, she knew that people who believe they have to be nice all the time are often taken advantage of.

Maria had another thought. Being nice when others are nasty isn't fair. Fifth grade students can relate to fairness as a moral issue. Bingo. Maria was ready to lead the discussion in the context of her student's developmental stage. She asked, "Is there ever a time when being nice is not the right thing to do?"

Jordan, a boy who is usually very quiet, was among the hand wavers. He stood up and said, "I think it’s a good thing to be nice because then people are nice to you."

Tina replied without raising her hand, "But what if people aren't nice to you? I mean, I try to be nice to my brother but when I lend him money, he never pays me back." She paused for a moment and then went on, "Why should I keep lending him money?"

Jordan sat down and mumbled, "Because maybe if you don't, he'll beat you up."

"But if I just keep on being nice all the time, he'll take all my allowance and I won't have any money to spend. That's not fair!" Tina put her hands on her hips and stared at Jordan.

Maria intervened, "You're right Tina, it's not fair. But do you think Tony will beat you up if you don't give him the money?"

"No. Tony's a lot older than me, and a lot bigger. If I ever felt scared of him, I'd tell my mom and he knows it. I just go and take what he owes me out of his pockets when he's sleeping. I guess it's not nice to get my money back that way, but that's what I do. I only take as much as he owes me."

"Do you still lend him money?" Tyrone asked.

"No. The last time he asked I told him I was going to charge interest and he stopped asking."

Maria smiled to herself.

Then Tyrone piped up. "When my dad flips the channels without asking what the rest of us want to watch, my mom throws a dish towel at him. That gets his attention, and he stops."

Even Jordan laughed at that one.

Maria had given up precious math teaching time, time needed to prepare her students to pass tests that would make her look good and her school eligible to qualify for federal funding under the no child left behind act. But she felt certain the focus on being fair would pay off. If her students were empowered with the skills to settle their own minor disputes in an atmosphere of fairness, she'd spend less time being a referee and more time being a teacher, and she wouldn't be tempted to take unnecessary sick days to get a break from the stress of the chaos in her classroom.

They can do it, She thought. And that night Maria fell to sleep with a smile on her face.

    —M. LaCourt