All year we have been looking forward to the last day of school. Yah, 'cuz duh, it's the last day, but also, because of the ice cream.
The kids worked this year on memorizing times tables, and as incentive, the moms (Kathy and I) dangled a banana-split flavored carrot - first kid to memorize all of their times tables got to have a banana split party, hosted by the other family. Each item in the sundae was connected to a number... 0's = Dish, 1's = spoon, 2's = banana - you get the idea.
Of course, Owen won the honor of not hosting the party by finishing first. He knocked it out of the park, as usual. The rest of the kids dragged along learning just the easy ones, or the ones that were coupled with their favorite items. Tessa realized she had only earned a banana and sprinkles, and moved ahead to earn some ice cream before bothering with toppings (6-9) or a cherry (12). Ellie puttered along, not trying too hard, and not making much progress. She figured she had time to spare.
The day arrived for the party. I told my girls they had to actually know the tables, not just have checked them off weeks ago, only to have forgotten them. It was then they realized that they hadn't earned much. Time was almost up. There ensued a mad rush to learn and earn toppings. But it was too late, and Ellie found herself with only a banana and two scoops of ice cream earned. Tessa had a banana, one scoop and sprinkles, but seemed to take it in stride, knowing that this would not be the last banana split she would ever eat in her life. But as we were dishing up the fancy treats into fancy boats, I noticed we were one child short. Ellie had gone missing.
I wandered the house and found her under her quilt, tear streaked and tragic. She was sad to be missing out on all of the choices, she was miffed that there had not been more time (only 4 months!), and she was embarrassed, first that her sundae would show to everyone in the room how little she had earned, and also that she had been, as she put it, "a cry baby".
I tried to comfort and encourage, but the bottom line was this: she had made her choice when there was time to choose, and now, in fairness to everyone, she must live with her choice. But it broke my heart. I remember missing out on a party that my 5th grade teacher offered each Friday to kids who had gotten all of their homework in. I had cried, and the teacher wanted to just let me come to the party, but I knew I didn't belong there. That almost felt worse.
As Kathy and I tried to coax Ellie out to enjoy what she had earned, we exchanged troubled expressions with each other. We knew how much this hurt her on the pain-scale of an eleven year old girl. We knew we had to be fair to the kids who had worked hard for their reward. As Kathy and I scooped ice cream for Ellie, we found ourselves being a bit generous with the size of scoops we gave her, somehow compensating a little for what would not be there. We wanted badly to show her Mercy. It was so tempting to just give her a full sundae, but it wouldn't be fair to the rest. I think "fair" was redefined for me that day in some subtle ways.
I have always told my kids, "Fair is not 'everyone gets the same'. Fair is 'everyone gets what they need.' It would be fair if we all got wheelchairs, but we don't all need them." The lecture resolves with me explaining how the perceived injustice they are whining about now isn't what they need, necessarily.
I am learning that just as the reward was tailored to the effort of the individual, in the future I need to consider the requirement. We had not required Jonah to do any of the math memorization. He's three. Lauren had memorized a few addition and subtraction facts, but earned her whole sundae, not for what she retained, but for how hard she tried. But we had clumped all of the other kids together just because of their ages, neglecting to consider temperament and attention levels. Maybe that wasn't quite fair.
I think in the future I would have a different set of expectations for each child. One might be based on effort, another, quantity... speed, scholarship, time spent; possibly as many ways as there are children. It would seem that in this way both Justice and Mercy may be served.
Ellie didn't eat her ice cream until the Jensen's had gone home that day. By then she had been able to enjoy it a little. She came to me later and asked if we could try again, feeling that next time she knows she would work harder. I told her that sounded like a great idea. Second chances and Mercy go hand in hand.