Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Toddler. The word itself is used to categorize children who have grown out of the infancy stage and are experiencing life between the ages of one and two. Watch a toddler and you will instantly see the sporadic, involuntary, and toddling movements that are associated with these young souls. Their days are spent as a weeble-wobble, walking around gingerly and falling repeatedly as they learn to make sense of their bodies in space. As adults we understand the innocence of this age, the exploration, the curiosity with movement. My four-year-old has a different perspective. Her understanding of the toddler years relies on a sense of fairness.

Recently the Associated Press published an article that highlighted a study conducted on dogs and whether or not these pets possess the ability to sense fairness. A researcher from the University of Vienna tested 29 dogs in varying pairs using the shaking hands technique of having the dogs offer a paw for a treat. The experimenter placed a bowl of sausages on one side and a bowl of brown bread on the other. What the team found was that when one dog received a reward and the other didn't, the unrewarded animal stopped playing. When both animals received a reward they participated with enthusiasm. The dogs level of participation was not effected by whether or not they received a sausage or a piece of bread, but only by the gesture of getting a treat altogether. The full article can be found at

A pair of dogs can sense the inequity of a situation when related to a simple system of rewards. Children and even adults are keen at sniffing out these differences with each other, stretching beyond treats, and encompassing everyday interactions. How do parents then establish a sense of fairness between siblings when one is developmentally light years away from the other? How important is it to establish fairness with a toddler who knows no better contentment then swinging her arms from side to side and...whooops..hitting her sister?

In my pursuit of an answer to these questions I discovered the similarities and differences between fairness and justice. The common ground between these two virtues is protecting the rights of others. Fairness means leveling the playing field without favoritism or prejudice, treating each other equally so that everyone receives a share and focusing on what is right for all involved. Justice involves never allowing stronger people to hurt weaker people, continually looking for the truth, making agreements that benefit everyone equally, and being fair in all that we do. Fairness lays the foundation for justice to settle and grow.

As parents we strive to maintain fairness between siblings by offering similar choices, enforcing rules equally and meeting every one's needs. When the field is muddy and torn-up due to factors out of our control, such as age, special needs, illness, etc, then what we really need to practice and give to our children is justice. With justice, we will be protecting every one's rights and helping one another understand and tolerate differences. Justice is the guardian of integrity. Parents are the people who make the shield and empower siblings to treat one another with a sense of justice, even when circumstances appear to be unfair.

So tonight when the toddler meets the behemoth for pre-dinner battle, the field will be uneven, with lots of holes and pitfalls. The purveyor of justice will march in to ensure that each sibling understands how to use gentle hands and hopefully the scales of justice will once again be balanced in our house of virtues.

And a reminder for the day : Bark less. Wag more.

With peace and hope,

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