Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Another Thought About Siblings And Fairness

Oh my goodness--I have so many things I'd love to write about and so little time in which to do so that I have a strange little queue of unwritten blog posts in my brain (and in Blogger, too). So, here's one.

After I wrote the post about siblings yesterday, I thought of a better example of the "Equal and fair are not the same thing" principle.

One of the more challenging sibling-differences we face concerns Ryan's peanut allergy. I'm sure you all know this, but it never hurts to say it again--Ryan has a life-threatening allergy to peanuts. Morgan does not.

Now, we don't keep peanuts or peanut-containing products in the house. I don't see this changing any time soon, as we still have Sean to think about, and we have committed to Ryan that our house--HIS house--will be as safe for him as we can possibly make it. While they are all so young, this means a zero-tolerance policy about peanuts. I can imagine that we may reevaluate this policy one day, but not until they are all much older.

Making our house a peanut-free zone definitely falls under the idea of "Equal and fair are not the same thing."

I certainly have a lot of sympathy with parents of kids without food allergies, who are nonetheless affected by food allergies--can't bring cupcakes to school, etc.

Why? Because Morgan is one of those kids and she is REALLY affected, because she doesn't even have the option of eating a yummy nutritious peanut-laden snack at home. We have to create circumstances where it's okay for her to eat something with peanuts in it. She's going to a birthday party this weekend where she'll get to eat absolutely anything she likes. (Ryan won't be there--it'll be weird for me not to have to check a label or ask the manager about peanuts!)

It's not fair to Morgan, no. (It's REALLY not fair to Ryan, having the allergy to begin with.) And the fact that one child can eat something the other can't isn't equal either. But each child has an right to safety in our home. Ryan's safety depends on our home being peanut-free, so we must all accept the unfairness of not getting to eat PB&Js.

Conversely, when we go out in public, Morgan will get to eat things that Ryan doesn't. (We haven't actually faced this yet.) Even if Ryan were attending this birthday party, I would still allow Morgan to eat whatever she liked. Not fair to Ryan, but Morgan should be able to eat what she likes of food that's safe for her when we are outside the home. As long as reasonable precautions were taken to protect Ryan--and we would certainly take them--then it would be Ryan dealing with unfairness. Again.

This unfairness is something he is somewhat used to by now--but he's never been faced with this from a sibling before. I think that the first time we are all together at an event where Morgan (and possibly Sean) is eating something he can't will be very difficult for Ryan. It's hard enough for him to accept that his friends don't have this peanut restriction--but I suspect that it will be harder for him to face that his sister doesn't either.

I don't know exactly how it will play out--it could go better than I'm imagining. When we deal with this in real life, I'll be sure to let you know.


Rachel said...

I wonder if you could elaborate on the concept of fairness. The reason I ask is because I myself struggle with this in my own life. I often rail against reality for having been born trans. ("Why oh why couldn't I have been born a normal girl and had all the normal girl stuff growing up?!") But something I read once, in an Objectivist forum, reminded me that the concept of justice is only applicable in the context of human choices and that there is no such thing as "fairness" in circumstances of the metaphysically given.

Personally, I've used this reminder to coach myself (with varying amounts of success) in my efforts to come to terms with the inconveniences of having a brain-anatomy mismatch, to help myself come to an acceptance that my circumstances don't prevent me from making choices that will lead to my own happiness.

I feel like I know what you mean when you use the word "fair" in your post, but I can't really think of a word that fits, if "fair" isn't the right word.

What do you think?

Kelly Elmore said...


I have thought about this a little today, and here's what I've got. I guess by fair I would mean that kids get what they can reasonably be supposed to get from their parents. Having kids is a commitment. You don't commit to giving a child everything he wants or even everything his sibling gets. You commit to giving him everything he needs, to the best of your ability. Children need different things, and so your parental obligations to them are different. One might need lots of social interaction. Another might need more time with mom. Another might need physical help the others don't. They don't have to get the same, but they have to get the things that are required for them to grow to be their best person. Do I think parents can meet every single need? No. My child needs to sleep with someone, and I need to sleep with my partner in a very small bed. Our needs clash, so we make concessions. She may not sleep with me, but she may fall asleep with a movie on if she wants. I help her get her need met to the best of my ability. I think it can be incredibly hard to do that the more people you add to a family. But it is working for solutions to get everyone's needs met that is fair.

Rational Jenn said...

I think there are two senses of the word "fair." And I've been mixing them up a bit.

There's the "luck" sense of fair--"luck" in a metaphysical sense. Ryan has had bad luck, getting the peanut allergy. In a sense--it's not fair that he has this to deal with and Morgan doesn't. Same with Brendan and diabetes, or (perhaps?) you as trans.

But that is very different than the notion of "fairness" as treating someone in a just manner.

Perhaps I ought to have said something like--Ryan has the bad luck of having PA. That is a fact of reality and really bad for him. So, because of this bit of bad luck, he doesn't get to have the same experiences as other kids.

And neither does Morgan, which is a bit of bad luck for her, this having a sibling with such a medical condition that it prevents her from having the same experiences as other children--although to a vastly lesser degree than Ryan.

But, to be just to both children, we handle issues around PA differently in different contexts, so long as Ryan's life can be reasonably protected.

To Kelly's point--there is no right as such for every desire to be accommodated. Compromises must take place, and more compromises occur when you are balancing the needs of more and more people. As long as the child is being taken care of, then that is just, even if her experiences are different from a siblings, or even different from other children's.


Anonymous said...

Ryan's allergy is not his sister's fault. Perhaps instead of using force to keep her from bringing peanut products into the house, you should allow her and Ryan to reach a mutually beneficial outcome.

Rational Jenn said...

Anon, thanks for stopping by.

You're right. Ryan's allergy is NOT Morgan's fault. Ryan's allergy is life-threatening though. Even a touch will make him break out into hives. If he touched a minute amount with his hand, and then touched his mouth or eye, there is a very real risk to his life.

I can maybe see in 10 or so years, discussing what, if any, peanut products to allow into the house, and such a discussion would of course involve everyone. But at their ages--he is 6.5, she is 3.5 (not to mention the baby)--they are all too young.

Ryan needs a safe environment in which to learn to handle his allergy in a safe way in the world. If we allowed any peanut products into the house at this point, then he would not be allowed to eat from our pantry freely, to get himself a snack independently. As it is--no manufacturing process/labeling process is perfect and there is still always a risk since peanuts are so common.

It's more important to us that he be free in his environment--it's the same thing as putting breakables away, or removing sharp knives from a child's environment so that they can be free to explore.

Over the years, we will show him how to use his Epi-pen on himself, to read labels intelligently, to understand risk/benefit. We've begun this process, of course, but at not even 7 years old, he is not there yet.

So the rest of us must forego a little peanut butter. I think it's a just trade-off really. Life and death is not negotiable.

brendan said...

You know, what bugs me is the fact that Anonymous probably thinks that he/she got one over on you here.

Anon -- would you suggest that a truck driver and a bicyclist in his immediate path could come to a mutually beneficial arrangement as to how serious the cyclist's injuries should be?

Nice try, but next time, please invite your brain along for the discussion.

Kelly Elmore said...

Gosh anonymous, you are so right. It would be much better for Morgan if we let her have peanuts in the house, Ryan accidentally died from eating one, and she had to endure that knowledge the rest of her life.

Jesus Christ, the peanuts can kill him. I would never let a child bring arsenic into the house of another child, until all people were old enough to be responsible (in an adult way) for their lives.

Poor Morgan can eat peanuts at my house whenever she wants, and I understand if she resents not eating them at home. But she is three. Death of a sibling is not a consequence I am willing to let a 3 year old face in the name of her freedom.