By Clare Gervasi
“It’s not my fault.”
“I didn’t do it.”
These are phrases I often hear from my own five year old child as well as the preschool children that I work with. I hear this when someone starts crying and another kid is standing nearby. I hear it when the leg breaks on a table. I hear it when a jar of colored pencils gets knocked over. I hear it when someone falls down. I hear it dozens of times per week when something unexpected, desctructive, and/or unfortunate happens.
I respond with this: “It doesn’t matter.”
It doesn’t matter whose fault it is, my dear. It doesn’t matter who did it. What matters is how we can help; how we can support the situation to restore peace and community.
I instinctively, automatically counter their protest of “not I.” Why? I mean, it’s probably not their fault; most of the time, the explanation for an unfortunate event is that “accidents happen,” at least on the playground (if not in the world at large). The reason I negate their protests is not because I want to accuse them or assign blame somewhere; it’s because I want to push back against this idea that someone has to have a direct role in an unfortunate event in order to feel any responsibility toward it or involvement in it.
Why do children even invoke the cry of “not I” when chaos erupts? It is because they are already internalizing once of the most destructive myths undergirding the American Dream: the myth of meritocracy.
Meritocracy is an ideal political system in which the distribution of goods and, by extension justice, is meted out according to ability. All rewards (and punishments) are earned; talent, skills and merit are rewarded accordingly. In such a conceptualization of human agency, we must assign culpability to an individual person in order for justice to be served. But this cultural need to assign individual blame is just one way of conceptualizing justice. And its logic is strong in a child’s developing sense of fairness--because it’s even stronger in our culture at large.
American cultural and political narratives--both the progressive and the conservative versions--include elements of meritocracy, or the idea that we earn what we have, where we are in life, and by extension, what happens to us. Overall, “If you work hard, you will have everything you need,” or that “No one gets ahead without work” are ideas that powerfully dictate so many of the emotional reactions Americans have to various situations. These narratives are supported by the underlying assumption that our actions cause an equal amount of reaction, and also that all things that happen to us are in fact reactions to things we have done. For adults, our reactions to politics are often filtered through this narrative; for children, their reactions to interpersonal conflicts or accidents are filtered through it.
“It’s not my fault!” or “I didn’t do it!” are an extension of the logic of meritocracy. I earn my victories; therefore I also earn my misfortunes. Likewise, if I did not directly cause an action, that action has nothing to do with me and I should be neither blamed nor praised for it.
In such an envisioning of the world, causality is completely in the hands of the individual. Fate and grace have no role; everything that happens to me, I create through my own work, whether good or bad.
This narrative seems natural to us (especially those of us who are able-bodied, white, cis gender, heterosexual, educated, middle class, US citizens, etc), but it is not the only way to conceptualize work, causality or parenting. Children defend themselves when something unfortunate happens before anything has even been said, because they learn to anticipate the assignment of blame, which always must fall on some individual person or people. If it’s not your fault, it’s your brother’s. Somebody “has to” get in trouble for knocking over the vase.
I suggest that you do not, in fact, have to assign blame, even in cases where a child has purposefully done something unexpected. Because it doesn’t matter who can be blamed; what matters is how a child can contribute in order to right the situation. I mean to reassure children (not call them out) when I say, “It doesn’t matter.” I don’t care if you did it; I care if you can help now. Because there is more than justice; there is mercy. There is more than equality; there is fairness.
When we teach children that what’s equal is what’s fair, and that they have to earn whatever they get, not only are we lying to children (and they know it--they know they do not earn absolutely everything they have), but we are reproducing a harmful story wherein children (and adults) must believe that the conditions of their life are a product of their own effort and no one else’s, which only breeds a narrow and selfish worldview in which a person is motivated only by how it affects them directly. It also pathologizes people who are marginalized and oppressed by structural violence, by blaming them for their own oppression (Santa didn’t bring you any toys this year? It must be because you’re a terrible child; not because your once-stay-at-home mom ran away from her abusive husband with her three kids and is living in the shelter this Christmas, unemployed and afraid because her husband locked her out of all the bank accounts when she left. Yeah, it’s not that. You’re definitely just naughty and Santa knows.) Furthermore, it encourages unwarranted self-criticism when larger structural forces affect our ability to take care of ourselves.
So why do we respond to children that “It doesn’t matter” when children say, “It’s not my fault,” if we grown ups live and die by the story of meritocracy and blame? It is because we know, despite years of acculturation to that destructive narrative, that there is more than direct causality. We know there is more than will. There is structural violence; there is poverty and discrimination and racism and bad air quality and food deserts. There are natural disasters and congenital conditions and the whims of immigration.
And, there is also mercy. There is kindness, and there is helpfulness.
After we say, “It doesn’t matter,” what we should say to children, to other grown-ups, and to ourselves is, “If you can help, you should.” That is the refrain of grown-ups everywhere who know deep in their hearts (and on the surface of it too) that fair and equal aren’t the same. That we all can help when someone is hurt or something isn’t working, even if we can’t fix it.
We can all help. We can and so we should. And when we need help, hopefully someone else feels the same about us. In other words, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “Morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings, that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, that in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”
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