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‘It’s not fair!’

My five-year-old son and I are very much alike. We are both oldest children in (relatively) large families. We have the same name. We share the same interests (Go O’s!). We also look alike and have similar personalities. All of this means that it is sometimes extremely difficult for me to be his father. As my mother tells me, this is payback.

My son was born as I was finishing up my first year of law school. As we all heard numerous times during our first years of law school, going to law school teaches us how to think like lawyers. I agree whole-heartedly and frankly, I have trouble remembering how I engaged with any subject — politics, sports, cooking — before law school. This also means that I have thought like a lawyer for the entire time I’ve been a father.

Unfortunately, thinking like a lawyer doesn’t always help me to be a better father. For example, my son often tells me that a directive I have given him — clean up his toys, turn off the TV — is “not fair.” For a long time, I made the time-consuming mistake of explaining to him why what I had asked him to do (or stop doing) was, in fact, completely fair. My wife would roll her eyes knowingly or glide behind me and whisper that I should stop wasting my time. She was right, of course. I only aggravated my son and myself by trying to explain.

My next step was to agree with my son. When he told me that something wasn’t fair, I would immediately tell him that he was right and it wasn’t fair. This worked well… the first few times. Thereafter, my son began retorting “it’s fair to you!” Initially, I stifled my laughter and continued with my plan of telling him he was right and agreeing with him that my order was fair to me but not to him.

Lately, though, I have begun to think about this notion — and more specifically —  his concept of fairness. He and I are very much alike, so I think I understand what he’s getting at. For him, fairness is more than just an equitable concept, the basis of a quantum meruit action in a dispute. For him — and for us? — fairness is a lived experience. It is a feeling, a strong and righteous one, that arises without any rational control, often in the heat of the moment.

Think about it. This is often the feeling that wells in the pit of your stomach when you realize that a judge is about to rule against you despite your well-reasoned argument. However, we have learned — at least most of us have — to suppress our desire to tell the judge that her ruling is “not fair.”

The point? I think that acknowledging and recognizing how, why and when this concept of fairness rears itself in my own life, the lives of my clients and the lives of adverse parties and their attorneys makes me better-equipped to serve my clients’ needs by insisting on bringing reason — as opposed to emotion — to bear on whatever matter they have brought before me.

And just in case you’re wondering, yes my son still protests that I am not fair, and no, I haven’t figured out how to handle it.

2 comments

  1. It’s not surprising that you are having difficulty explaining fairness to your son, you don’t seem to have a sense of what it consists of (e.g., fairness is not synonymous with gut reaction, your gut tells you about your personal history and self interests, nothing more). Rather than explain to your son why you are right, why not ask him to explain to you what he means by fairness and to tell you why the particular request you are making or order you are giving is not fair? And then be prepared to have a conversation with him about the subject, following up on his answer with the new questions it is bound to raise (not all the time, of course, but at least somewhat regularly – it’s odd that giving an order rather than having a conversation is the archetypal incident you chose to write about). Use your son’s objection, in other words, as the proverbial (and hackneyed) “teachable moment,” expecting that moment not to end for a very long time (i.e., years). It’s a little ironic that you credit legal education with teaching you how to think, and yet do not use the question asking method at the heart of that education in your conversations with your son. Your “agree/disagree” reaction to what he said (rather than to be curious about what he could have meant), and your seeming assumption that you must be right, are not unusual qualities in lawyers, of course, but to trace them to education, legal or otherwise, represents a misunderstanding of what education is all about. It also teaches your son to respond the same way in conversations with others in his life (after all, who else would he imitate), and plants the seeds for endless “payback” comments in future generations in your family. “Karma, Dude” does not have to be an immutable principle of existence.

  2. Pushkin no likey Cannon.