We Have to Stop Saying These Things to Our Kids

OK, friends. QUICK PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT because we have to stop saying these things to our kids: 

“There are going to be bullies his whole life, so he needs to start learning how to deal with that now.”

“She’s going to have to learn to work with people who make her feel uncomfortable.”

“Welp, life is unfair. Welcome to reality, child.”

And I know especially that last one is going to get someone’s goat. Like, real bad. Like, someone is going to stake his LIFE on that particular “life’s unfair” statement like it’s a doctrinal issue or protected in the Constitution or required for our very life on Planet Earth. But let me gently suggest something here — something that will be wholly new to some of us — children are hard-wired to seek justice and equality, and that’s a good thing, not something to tamp down or snuff out. We need to be really, really careful, friends, and also intentional about exactly what we’re teaching our kids.

Now, listen. I get it. I’ve been in the car with kids fighting over the front seat. I’ve watched them bicker over who got a skosh more ice cream. I’ve witnessed them fall all the way apart over whose turn it is to crack an egg, or stir the brownie batter, or lick bowl vs. spoon. I’ve said it myself when they’re stomping their feet or crumbling under the weight of their It’s Not Fair grief. “TOO BAD,” I have said. “LIFE IS NOT FAIR.” But I’ll tell you this, too — I’ve said it more to shut them up than because I believe in the veracity of the statement. I’ve said it to preemptively end the drama and pull rank. I’ve said it because I was TIRED and DONE and OVERWHELMED WITH MOMMING. What I was really saying was, “I believe this situation is minuscule. I believe this situation isn’t worth the emotion you’re investing in it. I believe this isn’t a big deal that’s worth my time and effort to correct. So I want you to Just Let It Go.” 

My response, in other words, had nothing to do with how I feel about life or fairness. If the situation were bigger — if it was one I deemed “worthy” — I’d never come at my kids with a “life’s not fair” response. 

Say my kid did every assignment in class, got full credit, aced all the tests, and ended up with a C- grade. When my kid comes to me and says, “This isn’t fair,” you better bet I’ll be meeting with the teacher to figure out what happened. I wouldn’t shrug my shoulders and say, “Oh, well — life isn’t fair, you know.” You wouldn’t expect me to. No one would. Nor would I accept that response from the teacher. We’d be looking at the grade book, ensuring our understanding matches, discussing, and problem solving. Right? Because we all seek to make things fair. All of us. 

Or say I go to the grocery store and they give me less change than I have coming. I’m going to point it out, and the clerk isn’t going to look at me and say, “Life isn’t fair, lady — say ‘bye to that $5 forever.” That’s … totally ridiculous. We can’t even fathom that situation happening. 

We all expect to be treated fairly. We expect it, and we should fight for it, yes? Life is NOT fair. That’s true, but it’s not an axiom we should use as though that’s the end of the story. Or as though that’s OK. And we certainly shouldn’t be teaching it to our kids as though they should simply accept unfairness. That’s … totally ridiculous, too.

It’s important to say what we mean and mean what we say. It matters that we help our kids understand the truth behind our words. So it’s not acceptable to spout easy phrases like “Life’s not fair,” when what we mean is, “This feels like a Big Thing to you, but I’m too exhausted to make who’s sitting in the front seat my top priority right now. Because this is a safety issue, we are not going to debate this standing in the Target parking lot. Abby gets the front seat. We’ll chat at home about how to ensure we’re all getting turns, right after Mommy gets a REAL BIG CUP OF COFFEE.” Let’s be sure to differentiate, shall we?

We wonder why justice is continually battered. We wish for better ways to fight inequality and inequity. We’re frustrated by the complacency of bystanders and their unwillingness to get involved when justice has gone awry. BUT WE KEEP SAYING THESE THINGS TO OUR CHILDREN, the “this is just the way it is” statements, and — listen up — THEY BELIEVE US. We’ve trained the people of our culture to be unresponsive. We’ve coached each other into conformity for generations. We’ve schooled ourselves to shut down our hearts and guts that tell us otherwise. We’ve managed to still our consciences. And now it’s up to us to change that.

THE GOOD NEWS IS OUR KIDS ALREADY GET IT. 

The good news is the kids can lead us in the way we should go. 

The good news is that that sense of what’s right and fair and just is already etched in their hearts, and if we can listen to them for a few minutes and not squash it, we can create substantive cultural change. 

I sat in a meeting with school officials a few years ago. One of my kids was being treated rather terribly, similar to last week’s situation but not entirely the same. There was a child lashing out, and my child was being hurt. I emailed the teacher. I accepted the invitation to meet with the principal and teacher. We sat at a tiny table in tiny plastic chairs and discussed.

And they said to me, “There are going to be bullies his whole life, so he need to start learning to deal with that now. He’s going to face this in middle school, and high school, and college, and someday in the work place. There are mean people everywhere. You need to let him know it’s just life.” 

I admit there was a pause in the conversation because I was dumbfounded. Like, my brain stuttered, and I couldn’t quite get it to cooperate. I even wondered for a moment if they might be right before I came to my senses.

“OH!” I said, “No. Nope. No, I’m definitely not going to tell him that, because that’s not true.”

What they were really saying was this, “This is just how it is. It’s not going to change. We will not help you make it change. Deal with it. Accept it. Acquiesce. Succumb.” 

But I will not teach my child to be powerless. I will not teach my child a sense of defeat. I will not teach him to accept that environments with mean people are the only environments in the world. I will not teach him to accept a world that’s not fair and not right, because it’s OK to want things to be fair. It is OK to protest unfairness. It is OK to seek justice. It is GOOD to challenge a system that supports systemic injustice. 

I’ve heard a lot of statements I used to think were normal that I now find quite bizarre. “Life isn’t fair” said with fatalism. “He’s just going to have to learn to deal with this.” “She needs to learn to work with people that make her feel uncomfortable.” 

That’s a hard no from me, friends.

All the nopes.

False.

I will teach my children they have choices and can take action. I will teach my children not to accept unfair as the norm. I will teach my children to speak up. I will teach my children I’m on their team. I will teach by example how to use my power — as a white person, as an adult, as a person who experiences privilege — to champion those without it. And I will teach my children they don’t have to remain in situations where they are being harmed or are uncomfortable or are being treated unfairly.

We cannot have it both ways. We cannot teach children both to trust their gut — one of the main skills emphasized in self-defense classes so they know to GET OUT when they feel things aren’t right — and to shut down their instincts at school because “life’s unfair” or they should “learn to be uncomfortable.”

My oldest daughter, Abby, called me from college two years ago when she was just starting out. She wasn’t sure she’d made the right choice to be out of state. She was homesick. She wanted to quit and come home. I told her to do it. If she already knew she was in the wrong spot, I said, COME HOME NOW. Life’s too short to stay in a situation that’s not right. She decided to stay. She thought it through, decided this was a situation to overcome rather than give in, and she stayed. Greg complimented me for my excellent reverse psychology in getting her to stay at school. I told him I wasn’t kidding. He looked like he was going to vomit, but he came around once he had a few minutes to think. But that’s the thing; SHE decided. She knew how to listen to her gut because she’d practiced. She knew whether this was a situation to abandon or a situation to stay. 

Here’s what I need us to all understand, friends: YOU CAN QUIT, AND SOMETIMES YOU SHOULD. The trick of parenting is not — I repeat, NOT — to teach our kids to persevere at all costs, although perseverance is an important skill for sure. The trick of parenting is helping our kids suss out when we need to persevere — when the THING WE WANT TO ACCOMPLISH is WORTH the cost of the hurdle we have to overcome — and when it’s OK to lay it down and say, “OH! HEY! Look at that! I just discovered that thing isn’t worth pursuing!” so they can channel their precious reserves of mental, physical, and emotional strength into something better. 

Those are the life skills I’m looking at building in my children, because I’m playing the long game here, which is this: I’m aiming for a world full of humans who are emotionally and mentally healthy. I’m aiming for a world full of confident humans who’ve fanned the flame of justice in their hearts. I’m aiming for a world full of humans who know they’re worthy of infinite love and worthy of respect and who will create kind spaces because they know what those look like. I’m aiming for a world full of humans who listen to their hearts, who trust their minds, who know right from wrong — which is the same as knowing love from not love — and who know how to build communities of other humans who do, too. 

Now — who’s in?

Sending you love, friends, and waving in the dark, as always, 

 

 

 

P.S. And sending EXTRA love to those of you in the path of Florence. You’re on my heart tonight.

P.P.S. I sent out our very first newsletter last week to those of you subscribed to the email list. I had an unreasonably good time writing it. If you want to never miss a post — and to get exclusive posts for email only — feel free to subscribe here. I’ll send you a horrible story about the day I peed my office. It’s the worst reason ever to join an email list. Do it. 

P.P.P.S. Just reread this whole post, as one does when one edits one’s writing, and noticed I said “quick” public service announcement at the beginning. Bless my heart for thinking I could be quick. 😂😂😂 I really should know better. 

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ABOUT BETH WOOLSEY I'm a writer. And a mess. And mouthy, brave, and strong. I believe we all belong to each other. I believe in the long way 'round. And I believe, always, in grace in the grime and wonder in the wild of a life lived off course from what was, once, a perfectly good plan.
21 comments
  1. So I read this a few weeks ago and loved it. Tonight my son came home from school with a story about 2 neighborhood boys who were seen ( not by him) stepping on a baby mouse repeatedly and killing it. My son was very upset, stayed he was extremely angry at the boys, and was going to say something about it to both of them and then not speak to those boys anymore. My first response was to say ‘well, you weren’t there, you didn’t see it, just let it go.’ He was not willing to and kept saying to me,’ but it’s a life mom. They ended the life of that baby mouse and it’s not ok.’ I want my son to continue to stand up to injustice, but I really don’t want drama or stress with friends in the neighborhood. My son has enough issues on his plate already . I told him he can just choose not to hang out with them, some people are just jerks, etc. But I was struggling with my response. I know he’s right but….
    I had this article/post in the back of my head too. came back to read this article again and I still really love it…but it didn’t help me formulate a better response. Any advice out there ?

  2. Thank you, Beth! I love coming here to recharge and re-motivate my Mommy self. We’ll keep doing better every day. Right? Right. Waving in the dark! Thanks for being inspirational and relatable at the same time.

  3. I’m one who has often said “Life isn’t fair” (in the voice of Jeremy Irons as Scar in The Lion King), and while sometimes it was said in commiseration, it was more often said as a parent who was tired of whining and fighting. There are no do-overs but I can do better with my grandchildren… and with people all around me.

  4. Right up there with ‘stop tattling.’ If something is going on that shouldn’t be, it should be reported! If the sole purpose is to get another in trouble, I’d consider it tattling. If a child is concerned because rules are not being followed & the adult in charge is unaware, by all means…report away! Adults need to recognize the difference.

  5. About two weeks into the school year, my youngest introvert needs a mental health day to deal with all the stimuli. For awhile, I debated about whether he should just learn to Do Hard Things Even When You Don’t Want To, but then I was like, “He’ll have his entire career to show up places he doesn’t always want to be, but when is he going to learn how to take some quiet time to recharge?” So when he says he’s too tired to go to school, he gets to stay home. There are times to suck it up, but not as many times as we think there are.

    1. Gosh, as an introverted person: thanks for letting your kid take a break! Downtime is super important for learning, and some of us need more of it than others.

  6. Very very timely. We decided to quit homeschooling for the year. I needed to lay it down and walk away. It’s harder to do than I thought but like you said, I sussed it out and I had to make a choice. I hope to be as wise as you when counselling my own kids.

  7. I’m a first grade teacher and I am in! I am all about teaching my students and myself thoughtfully and gently with mercy, love, truth, self-awareness, critical thinking, and empowerment.

  8. This is such a great expression and breakdown of this phenomenon – thank you. It has me thinking even harder and more earnestly about all.the.things, e.g. the US Open debate over whether Serena was “in the right or the wrong”, white privilege, raising my five year old, etc. You’re absolutely right that our objective has to be “a world of humans who listen with their hearts, trust with their minds and know right from wrong.” It certainly is easier to just accept and expect others to expect the easy route, but we should aim for and demand fairness.

  9. With you 100+% x infinity! And yes it is good and healthy to challenge an institution/system that perpetuates systemic injustice. Go with your gut, and your heart, and your head…has come up in discussions with my kids.
    And, there is room for everyone to be safe and successful, valued and accepted. No one deserves to just accept injustice “because that’s just the way it is”. Really? No way! Seriously, if that’s the case…if injustice is the expected norm then it’s time to adjust that…call in the Justice League….a big a
    Half-kneeling superhero landing of adults and kids who are dedicated to enacting justice as the norm. One the of my favorite posts Beth…one of my favorites.

  10. I completely agree with you!

    I don’t get the ‘there will always be difficult people — so we need to toughen up the kids NOW’ idea. Seriously? So a 4 year old should just ‘deal with it’? Rather than not be put in the situation in the first place?

    As an adult –yes, adults have the ability to use what they know and be able to confront many situations. A young child — well, no, they need our help. They don’t need platitudes and ‘suck it up’ from the people they trust the most. They need us to not put them in those situations if it is harmful to them. It’s so sad that so many people think it’s just the way it should be.

  11. Excellent. You always prompt me to think. This is a great discussion to have with my teens as sometimes Mommying gets us saying not quite what we mean. I am always apologizing for words that come out wrong, we notice tones, so this will be a good chat. Thank you for caring and sharing. ❤

  12. We once read a (not that good) book from the library about the It’s-Not-Fairy who came and bit people who said “It’s not fair”! We adapted it so the fairy comes and eats people’s books. Your reminder to use more accurate words is a good one because a snapped “it’s not fair” is easier than actually explaining.
    I often think that the characteristics of our children which make them hard to parent (and which we try to suppress because it makes them such hard word) are the characteristics they need to succeed as adults. For example, if we tell them to sit quietly and not interrupt, how are they going to get their voice heard in a meeting? If they always have to finish their meal even when they feel full, how are they going to know how not to overeat.
    The thing that impressed me the most was that you thought of your response to the teachers’ comments during the meeting! I just sit and nod and agree and then, about three hours later, realise what I should have said and fume because I have missed the moment. Like the teacher who said it was good my 7yo was a bit less teary that school year. She had been grieving the loss of her grandmother, watched her parents’ overwhelming grief and had her world turned upside down with the arrival of a very demanding sibling. How was she supposed to be behaving? Just man up?!
    I hope things get better for your son and that the school accepts that they have a legal duty of care to all their pupils and need to do something.

  13. We confuse “life isn’t convenient” with “life isn’t fair.” The first is incredibly true–we can’t always have the things we *want,* especially *right here right now.* As parents it is our responsibility to teach children to put up with things that are inconvenient and mitigate them as best they can. But inconvenience is not the same as Injustice. A child needs to learn that they have to deal with waiting in lines at the grocery store, or that they have to respect the rules that their parents set in a house, or to put up with certain rules at school like the inconvenient time that lunch is served when your day starts at 7:30. But if they are being treated unfairly, in a way that should not be tolerated for a person their age, their gender, their race, their ability level… pick any and all and more of those, then we also teach them to stand up for what we know is right.

  14. This is SO important. Thank you.

  15. I want to be you when I grow up! (Coming from a 33 year old mother of three boys!) I have not read a single one of your posts that I haven’t whole heartedly agreed with, commiserated with, or just thought YES! And I have read them all! You kept me company in the wee hours when I was breastfeeding my youngest (I started at the beginning of your blog and went all the way through) and I thank you so much for that. Please, keep being you x

  16. Totally in! Thank you, as always.

  17. In. All the way in.

  18. I am one of those parents who has screamed at her kids that fighting over where to sit in the van is a stupid waste of time and energy and they all need to shut up and sit down before they all lose the privilege of using their screens. (Seriously, screens are just about the only currency we’ve got.)

    Anyway, I’ve always been a proponent of saying exactly what you mean when speaking to anyone. All the same, I do often play the “Life’s not fair” card, and I do want my kids to be kids who look for ways to make life more fair.

    Thanks for the reminder to be more intentional.

  19. Thank you ! You have wonderful insight. You’re an awesome Mom!

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