Technology, Fairness and Kids

It’s not fair!  It’s just not fair!

Almost all of us with kids have heard this phrase from their mouths at one time or another, especially if the child has a sibling.  It’s been a chronic complaint for generations of parents as the egocentric kids worry that Sib is getting more than they are, whether it’s a smartphone, an Easy-Bake oven, a Hula hoop or a Dick Tracy detective kit.  And the response of most parents is a sigh or groan and an explanation that the Sib is really not being treated preferentially.  But does this age-old situation taken on a new face?  Has the technology curve changed how we handle the concept of fairness and equity with the kids and how do we manage it?

From talking with my peers over the years, the common recollection was that most parents tried to maintain an almost mechanistic even-handedness in dealing with the kids.  Like my own parents, if one child got a real desk at 10 years of age, then the next child received the same item at the same age.  It was a realistic defense in dealing with the kvetching that comes from kids sensitive to anything that threatens their own perceived place in the world.  And if anything can drive a parent batshit crazy, it’s the constant grousing from one or more of the kids who chronically attempt to prove their point, as pointless as it may be.  My own history was one of the mechanistic even-handed sort.  My older sister got some milestone item at a specific age and when I reached that same age a few years later, I received a like milestone item.  Desk?  check.  Decent bicycle?  check.  With many of my peers, it was a similar situation because typically, a kid didn’t need a specific item until there was actually a perceptible need for it. 

While my wife and I worked with this process through the early years of our children’s lives, it has taken a decidedly different turn in the past several months because of technology, specifically laptops and smartphones.  Until a few years ago, the family line was that there would be one family computer for the kids to share and that device was located in a common area of the house.  None of the kids had laptops that could be removed to bedrooms and there were no smartphones; the word on mobile phones was that when circumstance dictated it, then a child got a cellphone.  When Eldest was fifteen years of age and traveling to a distant city for a week-long event, we got her a cellphone.  As her high school graduation gift, we footed a nice, high-end laptop that would last through college.  Several years after Eldest blazed the way, Middle got a cellphone just before he was eligible to drive.  His laptop however, was earlier since the school decreed that all students would receive free laptops for use and lo and behold, a laptop appeared years before we had planned to foot for one and household guidelines had to be revised accordingly.  When the school district redrew boundary lines for the various schools to rebalance the size of their respective student bodies, we found that Youngest would be attending middle school at the school that was the further away so he got a simple cellphone for use in case or emergency; this was at an age several years younger than his siblings.

But the push has been on for months about upgrading to a better phone and by better, I mean a smartphone.  The repeated requests have been at Youngest’s behest because his simple phone is incapable of handling the communications now used by his peers, all of whom possess one manner of smartphone or another.  As one of his buddies commented, Dude, you should get an Apple…we’re an Apple family!  We’ve found that some of his friends will text with him simply because they’re friends but he’s the only one with whom they text and all else is handled via Instagram; this means that in oversight, there have been multiple events and get-togethers from which he’s been excluded and despite subsequent apologies from his buddies, it still hurts.  This realization has led to more discussion in the household.  Should we let the fact that he’s the only one without the latest and greatest drive a family decision?  What are the new family guidelines on smartphone use?  How fair is it to the older siblings that he’s received earlier access to technology and in some instances, by years?  Because Eldest was home visiting from college over a recent weekend, she responded that it was really irrelevant now.  The communication platforms favored by the youngsters – even younger than the college crowd – has changed significantly from when she was that age less than a decade before and if it was interfering with his capability to have a healthy and active social life with his peers, then it was worth the upgrade.  To be fully equitable however, we also upgraded Middle to a smartphone and as a favor to me, my wife also got me one as well.

So technological change has altered the question of maintaining a degree of fairness amongst the children.  What we’ve seen is that the other factor which makes it more pertinent is the age differential between the various children.  If you have only a few years between the children, then the matter won’t be a potential booby-trap.  But if you’re talking anywhere around the vicinity of five or more years between the kids, then it’s liable to be more of a concern.  There are no right or wrong answers here.  But it’s worthwhile to be aware of the trip hazards as you negotiate the debate.

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