A little test to assess the sense of fairness in children
Enders and Hennes are our two grandchildren, now nine and eight years old, respectively. Enders is super-smart, solves logical and mathematical problems like a pro, understands sciences like evolution and astronomy quite deeply. Hennes is the artist, draws imaginatively, is linguistically highly talented, and gifted with a very wry sense of humour.
Enders and Hennes get on wonderfully together. That became especially important when Covid struck, and they were home-schooled for over a year. No friends and schoolmates to play with, no communal classroom and extracurricular activities. Thank heavens they share a deep affection and can entertain each other all day long.
Enders and Hennes are very different in personality, but share so many common interests. There is one problem, though. They are just 1¼ years apart, and sometimes fiercely competitive. There are many situations where the usually harmonious interaction breaks down. They will argue passionately about who gets the red mug and who the blue one, or who has taken more strawberries or a larger slice of cake. Over the years it has become better, with Enders giving in to Hennes’ demands more easily.
To test their progress, I conducted a little experiment, which I urge you to try on your own kids. It is most illuminating. This is how I went about it.
In the lakeside park I call the boys over and addressed the older of the two: “Enders,” I said, “I here are five one-Euro coins, for you and your brother. You must share the money, and do it in the following way: you propose to Hennes how you want to divide it up, and he will agree or refuse. You make a one-time offer. If he accepts, you guys get to keep the money and spend it on anything you like. If he refuses, I take back the five Euros. Both get nothing.” Hennes was able to listen to the instructions I gave to Enders.
Enders was worried: “Can you give me two 50-cent coins,” he asked. “No, you must operate with what you have,” I said. He sat around, frowning and thinking, for a good while. He then went to Hennes and said: “Henny, I have five Euros to share with you. How about I give you three, and I keep two?” Hennes happily agreed. And they used the money to buy ice-cream and candy.
Afterwards, I asked Enders why he had made that specific offer to Hennes. I had fully expected him to propose that his brother gets two Euros, and he keeps three for himself. The justification was obvious: he is older, and he had received the money to distribute. So why had he made such a generous offer? “I didn’t want Hennes to refuse,” he explained.
“But Hennes knew that if he refused your offer, both would get nothing,” I said. “Surely he would accept a 3–2 split?” Enders’ reply: “You don’t know Hennes!” Enders, on the other hand, does. For Hennes fairness has the highest priority, and getting an equal share is of paramount importance. He would prefer that nobody got anything, rather than him getting less than his brother. So Enders had made a wise decision of offering him a deal he would definitely not refuse.
A week later we gathered to celebrate the first day of summer holidays. Everyone brought little gifts, and I had a something special for Hennes. I gave him five five-Euro notes — same conditions: you share them with Enders, making one offer, etc… I told him he should think carefully before doing it, but he didn’t hesitate: “Enders, I’ll give you three notes and keep two for myself, okay?” I asked Hennes why he had suggested splitting it up this way. Enders would have been certain to agree to a 3–2 split in favour of Hennes. “He was so fair to me last week,” Hennes replied. He had learnt to appreciate and reward generosity.
To entertain the boys, I told them the old envy story of the Russian farmer Boris, who hated his neighbour, Yuri, especially since Yuri owned a cow, while Boris did not. In his anger, he kicked an old bottle, and a genie emerged. “Thank you for saving me from hundreds of years of imprisonment in that bottle,” the genie said. “In return, I will grant you a wish. You can ask for anything you want: riches, health, world peace, anything.”
Boris’s wish: “Take away Yuri’s cow!” Both Enders and Hennes laughed heartily — and learned about the concept of petty envy…