Here’s the scenario: My son belongs to a Buddhist children’s group, for which I volunteer from time to time. Just recently, the entire sangha (or community) celebrated Buddha’s Birthday. The ceremony occurs in the Spring, so it incorporates themes similar to Easter, such as new life, hope, and joy. The kids take part in the first part of ceremony before heading outside for some fun activities.
This year, running with the theme of Spring, we held an egg hunt on the grounds of the Zen center. However, we try avoiding the competitive aspects of tradition egg hunts. I bet many of us (with Christian backgrounds) have been there before as kids: our bodies quaking with anticipation at the start line, baskets in hand, waiting for the signal to rush forth and scavenge as many eggs as we can (or at least more eggs than that damn kid next to you). And in some cases, there’s a coveted “golden egg” that’s used to declare the “winner” of the egg hunt. The entire scenario elicits a competitive, cut-throat spirit, leading to elbows in the gut, head-on collisions, and tears. All in the name of (re)birth and celebration.
The way we’ve done these hunts for the past two years is to hide eggs and then put a group basket in the middle of the field. When the parents call “Go,” the kids rush for the eggs, but are only allowed to pick up one at a time. They then rush back to the group basket where they deposit their egg before heading out for another one. In the end, we divvy up all the eggs, so that everyone gets an equal share. We’ve found that this has helped emphasize cooperation and has tempered kids’ competitive streaks.
Our egg hunt was going splendidly. The only controversy stemmed from those damned golden eggs. The packages I’d bought contained golden eggs, which I should have tossed aside, but added to the mix nonetheless. Hunting for the golden eggs brought out the competitive spirit, regardless of their eventual destination in the group basket. When the oldest girls saw them, they barreled past one another, leaving some very disappointed.
After the flurry of excitement, we went back inside to divvy up the eggs. But what to do with those damned golden eggs? There were only 4 and we had about 12 kids. My wife had an epiphany: we’d allow kids to offer them to the Buddha. It was a great lesson on giving away something precious. I asked volunteers to come up to make offerings. Unavoidably, more than 4 kids presented themselves. Luckily, I had set aside a few bigger eggs, so we had about 7 eggs to offer. And yet, there were 9 kids opting to make offerings. In the midst of my handing out the offering eggs, many eager hands delved into the basket without permission. Kids had eggs in hand, waiting for me to send them up to the altar. I looked around and two kids were without eggs, one of them being my own son. In that moment, I didn’t think I could ripped an egg from another child’s hands to give it to my own son. In the rush of confusion, I allowed the kids to keep the eggs they’d nabbed from my basket and started looking for two extra eggs to give to the egg-less kids. Just then another very kind girl holding a golden egg asked my son if he’d like to offer it with her. He agreed, and I found another empty egg for the last child. We seemed fine. Whew! I’d avoided a mess. Not so.
After the class, when the kids went downstairs with the adults, my son was nearly in tears. I held him close, because I thought I knew what it was about. He felt badly that he didn’t get a golden egg for the offering. I told him it was okay, because we were secretly going to bring the golden eggs home to use for next year, and he could keep some of them in his room. I thought it was about the eggs. I thought I’d solved the problem. It wasn’t and I hadn’t.
My wife pulled me aside later and told me my son was a sobbing mess because dad had overlooked him. It wasn’t about the eggs. It wasn’t about the competition. It was about dad not keeping him in mind when orchestrating the class. And it was true, I hadn’t, and I felt deeply saddened.
When I help run this group, I’m acutely aware that my son is in the mix. In running the class (just like the egg hunt), I try to be fair to all. I never want my son to feel as though I’m singling him out because I have higher expectations for him than the others, and on the flip side, I never want him to feel as though he gets special privileges just because he’s the teacher’s son. And yet, in my quest for equanimity, I actually treat him differently from the rest. In that moment when I was presented with the conundrum of 9 kids holding 7 offering eggs, the first thought that came to mind was that I couldn’t just take away other kids’ eggs to appease my son. When in fact, I should have taken his feelings into account. I should have seen that my son’s potential disappointment was valid and needed to be addressed by me, not only as his father, but as the teacher. If it hadn’t been my son who was egg-less, perhaps I wouldn’t have been as clouded by the potential of perceived favoritism. I might have asked all the kids to put down their eggs, so that we could find enough eggs to go around, and then divvy up the offerings. But no, I didn’t. I prioritized the other kids first, and then figured I’d patch things up with my son and the other egg-less kid.
In my attempt at treating everyone the same, I was actually treating my son differently. It really took me aback, and I had to reflect long and hard on the subject to avoid becoming defensive or self-righteous. When I came home, I offered a big apology. I said I was sorry that I overlooked him and his feelings, and that I would do my best to keep him in mind, just like I keep all the other kids in mind.
Sometimes in our quest for fairness, we can overlook those right under our noses, even our own kids.