Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Jealousy: The Problem that Won't go Away

Recently, our family experienced a knock-down drag-out fit courtesy of  a school fundraising project. The kids were given a presentation indoctrinating them as pizza-kit salesmen, promising the top seller the rich reward of a $50 giftcard to Walmart. Now, if you've read me for a while, you know that my position against school fundraisers is reasonably strong. We don't sell garbage for the school, instead we donate directly to the classroom, saving our community 400%, robbing the corporate fundraisers and keeping desperately needed money in the school's pocket. I explained this to my kids and further explained that there was no way we were going to be top sellers anyway, because there's always some kid who can outdo you through superior hook-ups in their parents life.

But this wasn't just a giftcard, this was a prize. And they want a prize! What makes a prize valuable? It's exclusivity, it's rarity. So we found ourselves dealing with an all-too familiar issue: jealousy.

Within the universe of my four daughters, jealousy is a domineering force, many times more powerful than gravity. It is difficult to the point of being impossible to keep things "fair" at all times. The peacefulness of a day can be forever shattered without repair with an argument that starts out "It's not fair!"

What's not fair? One kid having a toy the other one doesn't; a girl watching a TV show while the other is at girl scouts; not getting to play after school because we have an errand to run; not getting to have a certain snack because we're just plain out of it; bedtime; not being allowed to jump on the furniture; bath time; one girl getting new clothes because there was a lot in her size at the thrift store; one girl doing a project in the first grade that she didn't get to do in the first grade; did I mention bedtime? Because bedtime is never, ever fair.

What is this strange preoccupation that kids have with things being fair? I mean, it was a cliche when I was growing up to hear a grownup say, "Well, the world isn't fair." But I think that the truth goes far beyond that. More than not being fair, I don't think that "fairness" exists in the world--I think it's a concept that has little basis in objective reality. Something is only judged to be "fair" when they are happy with whatever lot they get, and that might include that another person doesn't get whatever lot that would make the first person jealous. We can get really abstract and touchy-feely with this, looking at what we have compared to people less privileged or looking at how what's good outweighs what's bad and all of that, but when it comes down to it, it's a measuring stick that a kid creates in the moment to build an argument for getting what they want.

So jealousy is the root of the problem. My girls get jealous of each other umpteen hundred times a day. Their dissatisfaction of the world is based not on what they have, but rather what they don't have that others do. To that complaint, I have this to say: Tough titties.

Clearly, as a caring and loving father, I try to make sure that benefit and fortune don't befall one of my kids much more than the others, but there must exist some kind of inequity for different things at different times, especially if this is looked at through the bent lens of a child.

Where does jealousy start and where does it end?

Let us look at where it ends first: it ends where an individual draws the line. You cannot own the entire world, therefore there is always something to be jealous of. If you cannot own the world, you have to learn how to be happy (or happier) with your corner of it. If you can't tame your mind for that, you might be in for a rough existence.

Where does it start? While it is probably some kind of biological property that exists for perpetuation of your genes or whatever, we should see that this biological property is exploited by our society each and every day. Jealousy and greed are the cornerstones of our civilization. Commercialism farms this stuff, planting the seeds and happily reaping the rewards. We show our kids jealousy all the time. We begrudge how unfair our position in life is when we want a new car or new house or new state or new shoes.

Maybe there's nothing wrong with that--in moderation--but we should be aware of it. If jealousy and greed are natural, that doesn't make them "good" and it doesn't make them any more tolerable when you're trying to live a life with six enmeshed individuals in one household. We need to tune into these things within ourselves and within our children's lives. It's tough and it needs constant attention. But isn't our happiness worth it?

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