Equity Isn’t Always Fair

Last week, my husband and I took the kids to Cape Cod for a few days to start our Spring Break. In our haste to leave, I was betrayed by the mild temperatures and the shining sun and I forgot the kids’ jackets. We could get away with no jackets since I’d packed a sweatshirt for my son, but I’d neglected to pack one for my daughter. On our first trip into town, we planned on buying one for her, and my husband asked, “Is this going to be okay, buying one for her and not for him?” I responded in my typical pragmatic fashion, refusing to acknowledge that the mind of a five-year-old boy often has little to do with reason and rationality: “He doesn’t need one. He’ll have to be fine with it.”

We stopped at the store and my daughter gleefully picked out a new sweatshirt, and the wheels of jealousy began to turn in my son’s mind. His typical smile turned into a pout, and by the time I was signing the credit card slip he was in tears on the pavement outside. We did our best to explain to him that the only reason his sister was getting a new sweatshirt was because it was cold and she didn’t have one; she needed one and he didn’t. “It’s not fair!” he wailed, and I explained that fair doesn’t necessarily mean everyone gets the same thing; it means everyone gets what they need. I tried to link the conversation to my husband buying him a new tire for his bike the previous week because he needed one and his sister didn’t, but the new tire wasn’t nearly as exciting as a new sweatshirt. He was too far gone, and my husband had to sit with him on a park bench while he screamed and thrashed, eventually calming him down and heading back to the house for a nap.

These rare tantrums from our son are definitely triggered by his sense of fairness, a totally age-appropriate fixation and one that is endlessly futile. We simply keep beating the drum that fair doesn’t mean the same, and some day he might fall in line. I recently taught a professional development course for teachers on self-efficacy, the beliefs students have in how successful they will be at a given task, and my co-facilitator showed this terrific poster she found on Pinterest.

Equality vs. Equity

The image of the kids trying to see the baseball game is one that really resonates for me, and it really captures the issues that my son is grappling with at the moment. I keep coming back to that image and the concept of equality versus equity as I think about the world in which my children are growing up. This week, the Supreme Court decided to allow the dominant majority to eliminate Affirmative Action for the marginalized minority. What it really comes down to is parents thinking that some short black kid is stealing their kid’s box at the baseball game, a box that they worked hard to buy for their child and a box that those black parents are too lazy to earn on their own.

Affirmative Action is one of those extremely touchy political topics, almost as divisive as abortion in some communities, and in a society where college acceptance—and acceptance into a few specific elite institutions—is seen as the primary indicator of future success, giving your tall kid a box he doesn’t need to see over that fence is just one way to better ensure that he will be forever happy.

Perhaps though, the boxes at the baseball game aren’t really an apt-enough metaphor for the nuances of college admissions. If the front line, those standing at the fence, is the Ivy Leagues, there are only so many spaces. Every kid who wants to stand at the fence can’t, regardless of how many boxes we give out. Some kids are going to have sit a few yards back in the front row of seats, and a few others will have to sit in the bleachers. Still others might have to watch the game on television. The point is that everyone gets to watch the game. Any kid who is legitimately up for a slot in the next freshman class at Harvard is certainly not going to be denied admission to a slew of really terrific schools out there, regardless of whether Harvard takes him in. He will get to watch the game and he will be successful and he will be happy, provided we can shift our rhetoric around what is fair so that he broadens his view of what those things really are.

These are lessons I’m trying to teach my children using the language of sweatshirts and bicycle tires and boxes at baseball games, while at the same time emphasizing that getting what they need will only benefit them in tandem with hard work and perseverance. No one is going to give them a box at the baseball game unless they’re sure that they both need it and deserve it.