Life isn’t fair?

Two children, a girl with a white cloth draped over her head representing the Virgin Mary, holding a doll, and a bigger child of indeterminate gender with a large fake beard and a beige Middle Eastern-style headscarf representing Joseph, standing over a straw crib filled with what looks like cotton wool, in a school nativity playThe other day I came across a discussion on the forum MumsNet about a boy at primary school who had been, for the umpteenth time, given a trivial role in his school play while the same children who always got major roles got them. The boy was obviously upset and the mother was asking whether to pull him out of the play altogether, as he got the impression that it was not worth trying. Other parents commented that this is how it always is at schools, in their experience — nepotism rules, merit means little. Others argued that minor roles should not be dismissed as trivial as the play depends on them as much as on the big players, that the teachers may have been picking the children who showed the most talent, while others gave variations of the “life isn’t fair” theme, that the mother shouldn’t pull his son out as he had to learn that he couldn’t get his way all the time and that if he really wanted to be in plays, he ought to join a theatre group out of school hours. (The thread has been removed as it was “causing the OP [original poster] some real-life problems”.)

I find the “life isn’t fair” attitude to be the most problematic of these responses. Schools are institutions, run by trained, supposedly professional, adults who are paid to educate the children. Among their duties is to teach children right from wrong. If their behaviour is persistently unfair, handing out favours to the children they like the best while making no effort to develop other children’s talents, this cannot be dismissed as just one of the vicissitudes of life. A primary school play is not a grand production but a group activity in which all the children should be made to feel included, and while not all children can have big parts all the time, they should make some effort to rotate the major roles so that it’s not always the same children getting starring roles and the same children feeling left out. (For what it’s worth, not all schools do this. I got a big role in my last primary school’s nativity play, despite being a part-time non-pupil on special needs grounds. That was back in 1987, but I’m sure other schools make an effort to include children who are keen but aren’t members of the in-crowd.)

I am going to make clear that I work from the starting point of believing what the original poster says; unlike some of the contributors to the thread, I am not going to imagine that she is twisting this or exaggerating that. Ben Goldacre, I think it was, once quoted the Times’ foreign correspondent Louis P Heren as saying ‘When a politician tells you something in confidence, always ask yourself “why is this lying bastard lying to me?”’, but said that you cannot conduct a scientific debate on the basis that those that disagree with you are lying bastards, and I am not going to assume that of anyone who says they or their child has been the victim of an injustice either. On occasions here I’ve helped people who had been in difficulties with social services, or similar, and did so on the basis that their story could be true because, you know, it happens. On at least one of them, I later discovered that the parent had not been entirely truthful with me (and her other supporters), and backed out. I’m not in contact with this parent; I’m just going on what I read on MumsNet the other night.

A lot of the observations about this being a learning experience are quite valid, as long as the lessons are taught to all the children. The lesson that you cannot expect adults to sort all your problems out for you, as one day you will be an adult yourself and those you once called adults will be old and unable to help you — that’s fine as long as all the children learn that. The lesson that supporting roles are important — fine, as long as they all get to learn that (especially as such roles often involve a lot of waiting backstage rather than watching the play; the “better actors” in the class should get this experience too); the suggestion was that the children getting the big roles had never had to do the small roles. The lesson that you cannot give up any time you fail an audition or an interview, as you will have many such experiences in the ‘real world’ — fine, except that this is not a single incident, as the original poster said, but one of many where he will only have so many opportunities as you only get seven years at primary school. You do not only get seven opportunities to get a job and then bang, you’re on the dole for life.

A scene from the 1979 British film 'Scum', set in a juvenile detention centre, in which the lead character (Ray Winstone) pins another inmate to the wall and knees him between the legs (among other assaults).The worrying thing in seeing parents take a fatalistic attitude towards persistent unfairness is that the same rules might be applied to bullying as well. I saw this a lot at school myself where bullies were quite openly favoured by staff (and some later made prefects, despite involvement in multiple violent incidents, so they could carry on their thuggery with explicit staff approval), staff took their side whenever their victims complained, and they (and certain others who were supposed to care) brushed it off by saying it was just the way of the world or that it was my fault. I was even told that making them prefects was appropriate because bullying can be a sign of having ‘leadership skills’, when even if this is true, such skills should not be developed by using other children as props, and in any case the school had a history of indulging bullies while openly humiliating their victims. And as with the previous examples, it’s only some children — in this case, those at the bottom of the pile — who have to learn these ‘lessons’, while others learn that they can use violence to get their own way, a lesson they will carry on into adult life, with all the consequences that involves for those who may work for them, or those with the misfortune of being their partners in life. Worse, girls are being told similar things about sexual harassment in schools and in public, with such excuses as “boys will be boys”, “he only does it because he likes you”, “it’s the price you pay for being a woman” and a host of similar nonsense. Boys learn that they will get away with it; girls learn that they just have to put up with it, or that all men are like this and they cannot expect any better.

There is a saying I learned when studying Truman Capote’s book, In Cold Blood, about the murder of a family in Kansas in the 1950s by two drifters who thought they must have a safe full of money. The sister of one of the murderers, in one of many letters she wrote to persuade him to turn his life around, told him “there is no shame in having a dirty face; the shame comes when you keep it dirty”. We can overlook the odd incident of unfairness and the odd incident of bullying, as long as it is robustly dealt with by the school, does not make a school a bad school. But we mustn’t respond to these things when they happen persistently with a fatalistic, or lazy, “life isn’t fair” attitude. Children only get one childhood and it isn’t what they make it, it’s what we (adults) make it, and while we can’t always make life fair, we can be fair ourselves. (In the particular case of the child given a token role in the school play, I’d advise getting together with some other parents with similar experiences to work things out with the teacher if possible. If not, I see nothing wrong with quietly withdrawing the boy if he really doesn’t want to do it.)

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