“Do mine first,” my 7-year-old grandson, Matthew, whined, “cause you did John’s thingy first.”

pouting child

I was about to cut the tops off pumpkins so the boys could convert them to jack-o-lanterns to enjoy during the week before Halloween. John was our guest. I squinted at Matthew. “Excuse me?”

A very relaxed John offered an explanation. “He means you put the batteries in my headlamp before his.”

I thanked him and mentally calculated how we would make it through the rest of the weekend together if Matthew kept score on my every move. I took a deep breath. Maybe I was too old for this. In KJ Dell’Antonia’s article in the NYTimes, “When a Child Thinks Life Is Unfair, Use Game Theory”, she summarizes strategies for converting perceived favoritism to fairness. “Random Dictator” substitutes the luck of the draw—a name out of a hat—and eliminates adults doing the choosing. I get it. But, I’ve found that the Russian roulette aspect of the tactic tends to send losers into a funk. It still feels personal to them.

Later that night the boys and I gathered around their glowing jack-o-lanterns to share ghost stories. I anticipated there might be trouble with who goes first and decided to preempt a squabble by claiming that place for myself if necessary. Hey, then the two of them could console each other.

But Matthew was the epitome of civility. “You go first, John.  You’re the guest.”

I looked at John who had little choice but to honor the gift of first place.

Was I outwitted? Probably. A politeness routine can masquerade as a fairness tactic, depending on the motivation. After all, reading has the tinge of schoolwork. Will I ever catch up? No. But I’m having a great time detecting the finer points of kids’ fairness maneuvers along the way.