Justice and Mercy: A Unique Teaching Moment With my Kids

Aug 26, 2012
7 min read

Meet “Peter” the Lego Friends character who also happens to be the object of the latest source of contention in the Reed household.

I’m going to try my best to accurately capture a discussion that just transpired minutes before writing this article involving myself, my seven year old and five year old. For the sake of privacy, I will refer to the 7 year old as “Mary” and the 5 year old as “Tina” (I let them pick the names).

There was a conflict over a toy that belonged to Mary, the toy was “Peter” as pictured above. Tina had come along and picked up the toy while Mary had momentarily been distracted and small riot ensued as Mary realized that her toy had been seized without her permission. It just so happens that I had spent the afternoon pondering the principles of justice and mercy, so I declined my initial instinct to barge into the room and fulfill Bill Cosby’s uncomfortably familiar observation that “Parents are not interested in justice — they want QUIET!”

I decided to be interested in justice…and mercy and take this unique time on a Sabbath-day afternoon to try and teach about both.

I gathered them both together and told them that I was going to try and help them figure this out for themselves. First, we addressed the toy at the center of the contention. I asked who it belonged to and both of them confirmed that it belonged to Mary.

Next we addressed the concept of “property”. I asked “What happens when you take something that doesn’t belong to you?” Tina correctly identified the activity as “stealing”. We discussed that this was against the 10 commandments and also against the law of the land.

I asked Tina, “If you want to use something that belongs to someone else there are two ways you can do this, do you know what they are?”

She replied, “You can steal or you can ask permission”.

I confirmed her answer and then turned to Mary and then the conversation took an interesting turn that I didn’t quite anticipate. I asked Mary, “If someone asks permission to use something of yours you have two choices, do you know what they are?”

She responded, “I can say yes or no”.

I was pretty impressed with their wisdom at this point in the conversation but the situation required further insight, because at this point we had basically illustrated the principle of “justice”. In this situation, justice only satisfied one side of the conflict, Mary had the right to play with her toy and Tina didn’t have the right to take it from her.

On any given day this should have been an open and shut case, “Give her back her toy and go do something else” could have been my reply (and I regretfully admit that it often IS). Today, however, I began to ponder on how both could be satisfied while justice could be preserved.

I turned my attention back to Mary to introduce the concept of mercy and how it might be applied in this situation. I told Mary, “If you chose to keep the toy and play with it, Tina would be upset but it would be fair. On the other hand, it would be unfair for Tina to demand for you to give her something that belonged to you.”

The girls seemed to agree that this wasn’t fair.

At this point, I introduced an extreme, but realistic scenario to try and magnify the principle I was trying to illustrate. I told the girls, “Let’s say that Tina came into Daddy’s office and accidentally spilled water all over Daddy’s laptop and destroyed it. She destroyed my property, that’s not fair and it isn’t just, so how can justice be restored? Justice doesn’t care about accidents.”

After some theorizing that led to a series of ideas, we concluded that either Tina had to pay for the laptop herself, or go to jail for her crimes. Mary suggested that I just buy a new laptop but I demonstrated that this would not be fair to me. I said, “Why should I have to pay for Tina’s mistakes, isn’t that kind of like stealing? Tina is completely incapable of replacing what she destroyed so then she would need to receive punishment and probably go to jail.”

Obviously I wasn’t going to throw Tina in jail so what is the solution? I explained it this way, “I know that Tina can’t pay for a new laptop, but I am not going to throw her in jail. I know it is a mistake, and it would be unfair for me to pay for another laptop when I did nothing wrong, but I love her and I would show mercy by paying the price myself and receiving a promise from Tina that she would not destroy my stuff in the future.”

Exploring the concept more, I asked, “If something is fair, is it good?”

The girls easily answered, “Yes.”

I then asked, “If something is unfair, is it bad?”

Again, they answered, “Yes.”

Next I asked, “Is justice fair?”

I had to explain a little again what justice was using the idea of people having the right to decide what they want to do with their property and not have it taken from them.

They agreed that justice was fair.

I asked, “If justice is fair, is it good?”

They said, “Sure!”

I was impressed that they seemed to be getting all this so it was time to blow their little minds. You probably aren’t sure whether to feel sorry for these children or not at this point.

“Is mercy fair?” I asked.

After glancing back and forth they tentatively gave conflicting answers. They didn’t get it, we were in water shallow enough for me but too deep for them so I needed to float them back to the shallow end momentarily.

I went back to the laptop example. I asked if it was fair for me to have to pay for a new laptop that Tina had destroyed. They agreed that it was not fair.

“So mercy is unfair then? If mercy means that you have to be responsible for something that someone else did when it wasn’t your fault, is that fair?” I inquired.

After thinking for a second or two, they concluded that mercy was not fair.

So I followed up that idea by asking, “If something unfair is bad, and mercy is unfair, is mercy bad?”

Tina asked, “Dad can we go back and play now?”

I said, “Ok, I’ll wrap this up here and you can go back to playing but let’s figure this out ok? Think back to the laptop, why did Daddy choose to pay for the laptop himself instead of putting Tina in jail?”

Mary quickly observed, “Because you love her!”

“That’s right,” I said, “and because I love her and I can, I would pay the price myself to keep her out of jail and restore my laptop.”

I followed up the obvious inference with this question, “Was it fair for Jesus to take the punishment and pay the price for the sins of everyone in the world?”

“No,” Mary said, “but he did all that because we are precious to him and he loves us.”

Yes, those were her exact words and the cuteness in how the words were conveyed were…pretty darn cute.

“That’s right, so even though mercy is not fair, it is just and good because all mercy is based on love and all love is good.” is what I wish I had said but I said something far less eloquent, but nevertheless the point was made and that was the general gist of it.

Now it was time to apply all of this to the original reason that prompted Daddy to preach a deep religious discourse to two kids that consider “My Little Pony” cartoons a well-spent use of their time.

I turned my attention back to Mary and asked, “If Tina decides to ask if she can use your toy instead of stealing it, you have two choices: you can say ‘yes’ and let her play with it or you can tell her ‘no’ and keep playing with it. Once choice is fair, one choice is unfair, one choice is just the other choice is merciful.”

Mary, in her wisdom flanked by two blonde pig-tails suggested the following solution, “I will tell her that I will let her play with it in a little bit after I finish playing with it!”

I hadn’t thought of this but congratulated her on such a reasonable offer that was both just, merciful and entirely fair!

I turned to Tina and suggested, “You now have the opportunity of being merciful. You can demand that she gives you the toy now, which would be unfair to Mary or you could let her play with it now and she will lend it to you later when she is done playing with it.”

Tina said, “I’ll play with it later.”

I concluded, “See, you solved the problem. You both showed mercy and love and now you both can be happy! Isn’t that awesome?”

As I conclude this account, I’m listening to them in the living room entering another mild conflict over another toy. “Justice and mercy!” I just called out across the kitchen.

Ah, the joys of parenting. How ironic that they end up teaching us more than we teach them.

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