Kindness or Justice in Children: Which is More Important?

A New York Times blogger recently questioned her choice to teach her daughter to be kind, above all else.

She writes, “My daughter had become the girl I hoped she would be — the girl I always wanted to be at her age: kind, well-liked, and always making sure everyone was included. But she had also become the girl who doesn’t stand up for herself. Faced with anything other than kindness, my daughter backs down, steps back, looks away.”

What went wrong? Should she tell her daughter to be mean, rather than kind? That’s obviously not the answer. What is the answer, then? In a word, justice. Children must learn justice.

How does justice apply in childhood? In principle, no different from how it applies in adulthood. When practicing justice, you give others what they objectively deserve—no more, and no less. There’s plenty of room for kindness in justice. There are people who deserve your kindness—in fact, loads of it, because being who they are benefits your own life, in some way. They exhibit good, decent, rational qualities, and you wish to reward or show appreciation for them. There are also people who deserve accountability and negative consequences. When possible, you leave them free to experience the consequence of their errors, flaws or evasions. In some cases, you actively punish or thwart them, when they deserve it.

The mother writes, “When people are grumpy or curt with us when we’re together, I remind her that maybe it’s not us, but them — maybe they’re having a bad day. I would rather be snide in return, but in front of her, I hold my tongue.”

Why are the only two choices, either to be kind, or snide in return? You can hold another person accountable in other ways. You can say, “You’re being nasty and rude. There’s no reason to be that way. Aren’t you embarrassed?” Or you can be snide in return. Or you can say nothing, not because it’s kind, but because you wish not to give the bully the psychological power he or she craves. The point: Kindness is not an end itself. You only practice kindness towards those who earn it.

We do children a disservice when we tell them to practice kindness above justice; or when we ignore justice altogether. We wonder why the adult world is such a mess. In the past, there were Nazi and Communist bullies. Today there are Islamofascists and other bullies seeking to bring us all down. We watch our leaders struggle between being kind and understanding versus trying to hold the bullies accountable. It’s absurd. Yet it’s what most of us were taught as little children, in turn taught by parents trained the same way. It starts with turning the other check on little playground bullies and it ends with 9/11, or who knows what other form of annihilation yet to come. We make excuses for the inexcusable at our own peril.

Justice is a virtue. It depends on reason and rationality. Reason and rationality show us the facts of another person’s words, deeds and attitudes. Justice involves a willingness to see people as they are, and in turn treat them as they deserve. We think of justice as something limited to courtrooms, or moralistic novels or stories. Justice is a virtue required for the small details and large events of daily life. As adults, we owe it to ourselves to recognize and practice it. If we have children under our care and influence, we owe it to them to teach its importance.

Justice requires thinking, assessing and making decisions. In a world where we’re all told never to judge, it’s an uphill battle, psychologically, to consider its value. But children, who are more vulnerable than anyone, must learn justice if they’re to survive, and if they’re to create a better world than the one they’re inheriting.

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