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Fair vs. Equal (an all-ages activity/Time for All Ages)
Fair vs. Equal (an all-ages activity/Time for All Ages)

What does “fair” mean? Is “fair” the same thing as “equal”? Which one is reflected in the concept of “justice”? Designed to be used as a Message for All Ages or as part of a Children's Chapel service, this activity uses cookies (yum!) to explore the differences between fair and equal.

To prepare, you’ll need cookies or crackers ("regular" sized, not goldfish crackers or mini-cookies). You’ll also need two plates. Be sure to first read through this description carefully, as this activity requires “on the ground” thinking!

Today’s service/message is about fairness. What does it mean when something is unfair? Has anything unfair ever happened to you?

Invite people to share their comments and experiences, or simply ask for a show of hands as affirmation that they have been in an “unfair” situation.

Is “fair” the same thing as “equal”?

Listen to and moderate opinions about “fair” versus “equal.”

To help us see for ourselves whether "fair" and "equal" are the same thing, we're going to use some volunteers and this bag of cookies [or crackers].

Explain as you go:
Bring out 10 of the cookies/crackers and two plates.

Invite two volunteers, preferably children or youth of about the same age, to come forward. Give each of the children an empty plate. Narrate as you divide the 10 cookies/crackers equally between the two children’s plates. (Make sure that all of your volunteers know that the cookies are for demonstration purposesno fair eating them until the service is over!)

Each of our volunteers has five cookies. Is that equal?

Confirm: ten divided by two = five cookies each.

Is it “fair” for each person to get five cookies? It might be. But let's start asking our volunteers some questions.

Ask your two child volunteers what they had for breakfast, and it should be obvious whose breakfast was bigger.

Since X (name) had a bigger breakfast than Y (name), their breakfasts weren’t equal size. Don’t you think that it’s fair to give Y more cookies, to make up for their smaller breakfast?

Invite people to offer their opinions, thanking them for each opinion. As they make suggestions, you or the volunteers can shuffle the cookies back and forth on the two plates to reflect general consensus of what a “fair” distribution of the ten cookies looks like. If no one has already mentioned it, say:

Wait! Maybe one of our volunteers is hungrier than the other!

Ask volunteers if they’re feeling is hungry. Determine – however whimsically, or just on a self-reported scale of one to ten, which child is hungrier than the other.

Since X (name) is hungrier than Y (name), isn’t it fair to give X more than half of the cookies, even though it’s not equal?

Again, solicit feedback about what a “fair” distribution of cookies is, based on hunger.

Send one of the volunteers back to their seat (big thank you from the group). Invite a volunteer of a much different age to come join the other volunteer. Each of them should still hold a plate.

Now we have people of different sizes to share the ten cookies. X (child’s name) is n years old. Z (adult’s name) is... well, older than that!

Since X is so much smaller than Z, is it fair to split the cookies evenly? Do you think that Z get more cookies because they’re bigger than X? Or should Z get fewer cookies because they’re a grown-up and can buy cookies anytime they want to?

Solicit opinions and move cookies from plate to plate, according to comments. Then:

You know, we haven’t even talked yet about what kind of cookies these are! Maybe we should find out whether X and Z even like gingersnaps (or lemon cookies, or fig newtons...)!

Ask your volunteers whether they like the cookies being offered.

If both volunteers report that they like the cookie type, send one volunteer back to their seat (with thanks). Ask for yet another volunteer: one who does not like the type of cookie being offered, or who is allergic to the type of cookie being offered.

Now we have a very different situation. Z  really likes eating this type of cookie. But Q (dislikes/allergic) doesn’t want to eat any. What’s the fairest way to split the cookies now? Is it fair that Z gets all ten cookies just because they like (the gingersnaps), and Q doesn’t get any?

Ask people to suggest a “fair” re-distribution of the ten cookies, and move the cookies to the appropriate plate.

Thank both volunteers, taking the plates with cookies and inviting them to return to their seats with thankful “applause.”

What did we see, by bringing up different pairs of people and trying to split ten cookies between them? What are some factors that make something seem “fair”?

As you invite comments and discussion, narrow the conversation to the “moral” of this service:

It turns out that “equal” is not the same thing as “fair.” Equality is a good thing: when we talk about people being "equal," or having "equal" rights, we mean that all people have the same giant amount of inherent worth and dignity.

As we saw, though, fairness is different. Fair doesn’t mean we get the same thing that everyone else has. Fair means that we go beyond what looks equal and instead ask a lot of questions. We’re beginning to see that fairness is complicated!

As Unitarian Universalists, we talk a lot about “justice.” When we use the word justice, often we’re talking about fairness. When we see something that's unfair, we believe in saying so. And just like we had to talk about ways to divide up the cookies, sometimes we need to talk (...a lot) about how to make things fair. This can be complicated, but it's a wonderful thing about Unitarian Universalism: we believe in equality AND in fairness, even when they're different.

About the Author

  • Erika Hewitt is the UUA's Minister of Worship Arts and Editor of Braver/Wiser , a weekly spirituality series. She also serves as a Unitarian Universalist parish minister and wedding officiant in Maine. Her book of theme-based ministry resources, co-written with educator Becky...

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