A light bulb went on above the little boy’s head as he scanned the yard and realized where the Golden Egg likely was. He’s just five years old, and his bag of eggs was half as full as the other kids. Yet suddenly, he knew where the last, most sought-after, most well-hidden egg just had to be.
He darted across the grassy expanse toward an overturned plant pot tucked under a tree. Others saw his movement, realized what he must be thinking, and began to follow.
Arriving at the pot, he bent down and lifted it, revealing the glint of gold. A smile erupted across his face.
Just as he reached for the Golden Egg, an eight-year-old girl nearly twice his size knocked him over and swiped it from in front of his outstretched hand.
“I got the Golden Egg!” she exclaimed.
My wife and I witnessed this violation of all things good and decent, and we rushed over to set it straight.
It reminded me of the stories making the rounds this time of year about nasty adults and their selfish kids ruining some well-intended community egg hunt, storming fields and knocking over toddlers to get more eggs, which are usually filled with crappy candy and worthless coupons for half-off your next oil change. We read the stories and think: how classless can people be? We dismiss it as examples of bad-parenting, spoiled children, and entitlement. Who are those people, anyway, who will seemingly do anything for a handful of free candy or a Golden Egg?
There’s only one problem with the scene I witnessed with the boy, the girl and the Golden Egg: the kids were both mine.
It happened at our annual family egg hunt we hold in the back yard of their grandmother’s house. There were just four kids involved, all my offspring, tasked with finding some 50 pastel, plastic eggs, most containing coins and candy. The Golden Egg — hidden better then the rest — always has a bit more. It’s a fun little tradition, and we’d never had any fights. Maybe some disappointed kids when someone else found the big egg, but no major breaches in etiquette and certainly no brawls. Until this time.
My wife and I immediately stepped in and scolded the older sister for knocking her little brother over and taking the egg he’d rightfully found.
She was incredulous. She grabbed it first! It was her egg! It’s not fair!
But he’s the one who found it, we said. You just grabbed it.
She didn’t see what was wrong with her actions, and my heart sank a bit. Then she started crying hysterically as her brother was handed the egg he’d found, wiping his own tears away and regaining the remnants of his smile.
For the record, our 8-year-old daughter is an exceptionally sweet kid. She’s funny and kind. She makes a point to hug everyone goodbye every time they leave the house, and she’s the one who advocates on behalf of all the spiders and stinkbugs I have to remove the premises, urging me to set them free rather than just squishing them like I’m apt to.
She also happens to be the third in a family of four kids, and has likely been pushed and knocked over herself a few times — not just in life, but earlier in the very same egg hunt. Growing up in a bigger family can be a combat sport. If anything, the episode was the culmination of an egg hunt that had gotten more aggressive than us parents were comfortable with, as kids dove for eggs like they were fumbled footballs. It was ultimately my fault for not enforcing the ground rules earlier.
She’s just a kid, too — a kid who wanted a darn Golden Egg.
Despite making excuses for her, you can bet we used the incident as a chance to teach about being kind to others, and also about being fair, which probably confused her because she thought she was in the right, and because my lessons on fairness often sounds more like “Whoever said life was fair?” That’s my standard refrain whenever a kid complains that something isn’t fair. Fortunately she didn’t spit it back at me.
In my time as a parent, I’ve found that most kids are acutely aware of this notion of fairness — even if they have a skewed view of what it means. It’s like we have an instinctual sense that things should be fair.
Understanding what “fair” actually means presents challenges, though, for kids and adults alike. It has nothing to do with getting what you want just because you think you deserve it. It’s more complicated. And, it’s true, somethings in life are inherently unfair. That’s just the way is. Others are unfair and call out to be fixed. Knowing the difference — when there is one — can be difficult.
It’s also hard to understand what accounts for a fair result when the results can themselves be so skewed. One kid got the Golden Egg. Three others did not. Is that fair? It doesn’t seem so to an eight year old. But that’s what we’ve always done. That’s the game. Thems the rules.
Which leads to more tough lessons for a kid to understand having to do with the balance between fairness and competition.
I know we’re talking about an egg hunt and not the Olympics here, but as parents, we all want our kids to be strong enough to succeed, to have the will to compete, and to learn to take care of themselves. Competition can teach this. Even competitions for plastic eggs. But we also want them to look out for the weak, to be unselfish, and to never be greedy. It’s a balance.
My wife and I could have watched the Golden Egg scene unfold and shrugged, complimenting the sister for her tenacity and telling the boy he should have grabbed it quicker. But that doesn’t seem right, does it? I want my kids to be tough, but I don’t want them to think they can step on people to get what they want.
What’s not right, either, is what happens at those big, awful egg hunts. And when we see adults pushing past kids to fill their own child’s baskets, it’s easy to look down on them. Yet, in so many other ways, modern life rewards selfishness and greed over fairness and equity. In other arenas, we celebrate those who have excess and hold subtle disdain for those who’ve lost and have nothing. We call it survival of the fittest, or just business. Why does it strike us so differently when we see it happen on a field full of kids and dumb Easter eggs?
After our own egg hunt incident, I began to think what we did wrong and what we could do differently. Maybe it was the fact we only have one Golden Egg and four kids, setting up a classic battle for scarce resources. Of course, if we eliminate the Golden Egg next year, we’d also take away some of the joy of this particular egg hunt. On the other hand, if we have four golden eggs, it certainly wouldn’t be as fun. And how do we guarantee each kid finds one unless we fix the results? Why not just hand out the eggs? We don’t because even the littlest kids like the accomplishment of finding the eggs themselves, against the odds.
For me, it’s not about changing our egg hunt, or sheltering our kids from all forms of competition, or rigging it so that they always win. It comes down to teaching kids what fairness actually means and how to recognize it.
This talk of Golden Eggs reminds me of the Golden Rule: Treat others as you yourself would want to be treated. That’s fairness in an eggshell. And that’s the best lesson for my kids, and for anyone who struggles with notions of fairness, competition, selfishness and greed.
It’s true that life isn’t always fair. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t ever be.