Monday, April 22, 2013

Life isn't fair. What do we do?

Here's a hypothetical situation:

3 students have to do a group project together. They agree on what each person has to contribute.  However, what ensues is this:

Student A doesn't do her part and disappears throughout duration of project, appearing in time only to put her name on project.

Student B doesn't really know what's going on, puts in a half-hearted effort that anyone can see is badly done.

Student C does her part and being a conscientious student, chases the others who don't respond. She now has the dilemma of wondering whether to take on Student A and Student B's share of the work, or just let the whole group flunk.

This is actually a very common scenario, I hear it from parents all the time (especially parents of kids like Student C).  As we all know, the world is made up of all kinds of people, so I'm not too surprised that this happens in schools.

What I'm astonished about though, is how frequently, if the group eventually scores a bad grade, the teacher will tell Student C that it was her fault, that she should have made sure the other two handed in the work.  The reasoning behind this logic is "that's what happens in real life, you have to make sure the work gets done. Real life isn't fair, get used to it."

I have a big issue with people who love to spout the "life isn't fair" cliche, as I often find that they're the ones perpetuating the belief.  I have an even bigger issue when that person is a teacher.  We all know life isn't fair, no argument there. And it's also true that when kids grow up and become adults in the working world, these are the challenges they will face.

However, the role of teachers is not to give our kids a dose of reality by reinforcing all that is bad about life and about people.  For example, we know facing failure builds resilience but that doesn't mean we set our kids up for failure. I saw this quote the other day that really shouted out to me:
“It’s not our job to toughen our children up to face a cruel and heartless world. It’s our job to raise children who will make the world a little less cruel and heartless.”
~ L.R.Knost
There's a gulf of difference between preparing kids for real life and training them for it. One teaches you how to deal with rats in the rat race, the other teaches you how to be a rat. The trouble is these days, we have become so obsessed with making sure that our kids are able to survive in the competitive landscape, that the focus of education has shifted from educating to training.  The former teaches you to be a better, more knowledgeable version of yourself.  The latter gives you skills to survive, to come up on top.  If your goal is the latter, it means that you only play to win, usually at the expense of someone else. Winner takes all.

That's where I feel many teachers and parents trip up.  I've heard anecdotal stories of parents who teach their kids how to get ahead by thinking only for Numero Uno.  If you have to lie on an application form, hide books, shove to get to the front, prey on the kindness of others, by all means, as long as you can get away with it.  After all, that's what life is like. It's a dog-eat-dog world.  It's called being street-smart. Life isn't fair.

The problem with this approach is that if everybody does this, nobody wins and society sucks big time.  Out of all the excuses, the lamest justification I always hear: "Everyone's doing it.  We have no choice!" That's right, another fantastic lesson we're teaching our kids - how to assign blame so we don't have to be responsible for our actions.

Back to project above - what did the students learn? Student A learns that you can do nothing and get away with it. Student B learns that it's ok not to try to try harder cos you can always ride on somebody's coattails.  Saddest of all, Student C learns that it really doesn't pay to be conscientious.  In fact, she's probably considered naive and stupid.

As parents and teachers, we need to understand that our role is to groom human beings who can make society better, not take advantage of it.  If kids don't learn about doing the right thing, how will they know this as adults?  The kind of messages we're sending to our kids is directly related to the kind of society we're creating.  We can't really complain about the moral decay of society if we're teaching children that they survive better if they leave their ethics at the front door.

We need to go back to basics and walk the talk.  Reinforce actions that demonstrate the age-old values of diligence, honesty, compassion and responsibility.  Show them that you can and should be kind in an unkind world.

Life is unfair. All the more we should try to make a difference.


Daddy Bear said...

Great read, as usual! :) You help voice the thoughts of many, myself included. I hear things that are happening in the libraries in NUS. Of what you mentioned above, which embellishes the kiau and kiasi-ism character. Agree with you when you say, that the worst excuse is saying everyone is doing it, we have no choice.

Thanks again Monica.


Debbie said...

Here here, Mon!!! Great points and yes, one of the reasons for moral decay in today's society where everyone wants to be tops and heck cares what it takes to get there - judging from the increase in no. of immoral corruption cases.....

Anonymous said...

It's a wonderful piece, Monica. It is true that so many of us are so guilty of perpetuating the "life is unfair so be it, so i do this to game the system too" philosophy and in the process, we churn out a worse society to grow up in. It takes a very BIG person to be able to shun and ignore all the naysayers and do what is right by humankind. It is a reminder that we make up society and society is made up of us.

Thanks for the piece again.


monlim said...

Thanks for the support. On a separate note, I was watching the movie "Invictus" over the weekend, on Nelson Mandela and the Rugby World Cup, and what struck me was that no matter how cruel people are and how difficult the situation, it's still possible to practise kindness and compassion, for the benefit of a whole country. Granted, Mandela is an extraordinary human being but imagine the kind of impact we can have if everyone just does their part.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this wonderful piece. I wish I can make all teachers read it, especially ds' current inept teacher. he is expected to put up with having his table bumped regularly while he is doing work, other students dancing in front of him, paper balls sailing over his head etc. When he finally loses his temper, he is blamed for intolerance. We did not understand how bad the situation was until a "model student" broke his glasses and he was blamed for leaving his glasses on his own table. Better still, the teacher accused him of trying to get the other student into trouble after I complained, which I know to be blatantly untrue because he did not even inform me of the incident until I asked him, and he was upset that I complained to the teacher.As luck would have it, he was bitten on the arm two weeks later by another child in class, and the jaw mark lasted for a week. The teacher's pet student was also caught stealing another child's belonging. It makes me wonder what the teacher was doing all these while. It is not an understatement to say that his class environment is WORSE than the real world.
(I usually leave my name, but for my son's sake, I will be anon this time.)

Anonymous said...

Dear Monica and Anon,
I am so sorry to hear of what happened to Anon's son. oh dear! i guess the stress and sense of non-empathy has to some degree permeated the consciousness of many educators - teaching becomes just another job, no more call, no more sense of wonder at imparting... very sad.


Anonymous said...

Hi Monica,

Reading your article brought me memories of how we fared in our Final Year Project (FYP).

3 of us were in the group, and we were supposed to submit a thesis for our final year. One of my team mates consistently didnt turn up for group discussions and didnt do what she was assigned to do. The other 2 of us were covering up for her all these while, including meeting our lecturer (the project supervisor) for project updates, doing market surveys and interviews without her.

Things got so bad that the 2 of us decided NOT to put up with her irresponsibility. We told our Project Supervisor what happened and he shook his head and told us that we shouldn't tolerate her sloppiness. In the end, the 2 of us got an "A" for our FYP while she scored a "C" for her FYP! :)

So, student C shouldn't suffer in silence. She could choose to do a solo project or join another group.

monlim said...

Anon: Thanks for sharing. I'm glad to hear your supervisor acted in a fair manner. However, it sounds like your experience was at the poly and I think there's more autonomy there. At the secondary school level, kids usually have less say in who they get to work with and sometimes when they complain, they get the "life isn't fair" spiel from the teacher. Hopefully, there will be more enlightenment in schools in time to come.

Anonymous said...

You are right! make a difference!

"Life is unfair" unfortunately has been used wrongly in broadly 2 situations. It is like saying "We need to breathe"...stating the obvious. The 2 situations are:

(1) Forever discontented people to keep screaming that and not do anything to themselves.

(2) By people who do not want to solve a problem and just want another to look at it as "Life is unfair" and accept the issues.

However, when all effort has been tried and tested and no other way to explain why...then "Life is unfair" probably becomes a fairer statement thereafter.


monlim said...

QX: Absolutely! And there's a 3rd group: People who want to do something that they know is unjust and use it as an excuse to justify their actions.

As you say, "Life is unfair" is stating the obvious. What's more meaningful is our actions knowing this fact.

Anonymous said...

Hi Monica/ Mrs Lim,

I have been a reader of your blog for a year. I think I have read every single post on this blog and on your travel blog. I really like your blog because it helps me understand the GEP system, being a P5 GEP student. Thanks for the post!

I can totally relate to this post because our teacher also likes to say "Life is unfair. Deal with it. This is the real world, wake up!", whenever we feel something is unfair.

Anyway, can I quote a few sentences of the rat race paragraph and the next 2 paragraphs for my upcoming debate? (On the Giver, our lit text. It is not the Wrinkle in Time anymore, though it is still in the ERP book list. )

Thank you for the post.


monlim said...

RT: Sure, by all means! As long as you quote the source, it's alright :)

Hope you're enjoying yourself in GEP!

Anonymous said...



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