That’s NOT FAIR!!!

Upset child
You’ve heard your kids claim this “truth” a million times.  How do you get them to stop throwing fairness up as their inalienable right?  It’s annoying, it feels like pressure for you as a parent, and you have no idea how to deal with it.

Here are five tips for dealing with kids who feel life is unfair:

1. This may seem a little harsh, but tell the kids, “We don’t do fair.”  It’s not a realistic expectation to think that life for every child will be equal and fair, so why hold it up as a family value?
2. Listen deeply to the feelings underlying the claim of unfairness.  “I imagine you are saying that because you feel your brother gets more attention than you do.  Is that right?”  Being comfortable with the tough feeling a child is expressing tends to neutralize it.
3. Remind the child that each person in the family is having his or her needs met to the best of your ability.  We all have clothes, food, a roof over our heads, enough rules, hot water for baths, and lots of love.
4. Comparing “who gets what is a dead-end” conversation.  Let the kids know that their legitimate need for material things will be met, and so will their siblings’, and it won’t always be the same or at the same time.  Give examples of when the oldest got a bike first because the younger ones weren’t big enough to ride yet; the musically interested one got piano lessons, while the hockey player got skates and ice time; the dancer got ballet lessons and the one who loved Karate had lessons, too.  It wasn’t the same (which kids sometimes think is “fair.”)
5. Show your kids how adults don’t live in the world of fairness, either. Every time mom buys a new pair of jeans, dad doesn’t run out and get something of equal value.  You both know you’ll be able to get the clothes you need, but not at the same time, and not necessarily items that cost the same.

Part of this exercise is releasing your own thinking that everything in your child’s world should be fair. It’s an easy trap to fall into when you have more than one child.  But it’s also fairly easy to correct.  Just say, “We don’t do fair, but we do provide for and love each of you.”

If you’d like more information about parent coaching on this or any child-rearing topic, click here for all the details. 


3 Responses to “That’s NOT FAIR!!!”

  • Leanne Strong says:

    Think about this. When kids are little, adults and older kids tell them stuff like, “it’s not fair that you get more cookies than your sibling does.” Or, “you can’t have any more time to finish your work than the other kids, because it’s not fair that you get more time to finish your work than they do.” This may be where “that’s not fair” starts. Adults explain fairness to children, as everyone getting the exact same treat for dessert. Or the exact same number of turns on the monkey bars at recess. So when kids notice that a sibling or peer has something different (or a different amount of something) than the others, this can be enough to tick them off!

    I’m 23 (24 in June) and have Asperger Syndrome (milder autism), and many people on the Autism Spectrum are very concrete in their thinking. I remember how sometimes it felt like my parents were letting my brother (2 years younger than me, and doesn’t have any special needs) off easy for something that would have gotten me a good long talking to when I was his age. I thought this wasn’t fair. This was because of the way adults explained fairness to me. It sounded like fairness meant treating everyone exactly the same.

  • tina_feigal says:

    You make a very strong point, Leanne, that much of the definition of “fairness” comes from parents and grows in their children. I encourage parents to play down this aspect of life, so kids can grow up feeling that if someone gets something more than they do, they will be able to handle it and know that their turn will come. Parents only need to monitor what they do around this, being sure to give their kids equal time and attention. But if they start the “fair” discussion, they’ve led themselves and their children down a path that’s hard to navigate, as in your case where your brother seemed to be let off more readily than you. You are right, fairness is not treating everybody the same, it’s treating everybody with positive regard. Thanks so much for writing!

  • Leanne Strong says:

    You are correct, Tina. Parents/guardians, teachers, and other people who have close contact with children need to think about how they explain and implement fairness. Here are some questions I encourage everyone to ask themselves:

    – Do I always cut the bread, cake, pie, pizza, or other things so that each slice is the exact same size?

    – Do I always count the holiday or birthday presents everyone receives, so that I can make sure everyone gets the exact same number of gifts?

    – Am I constantly monitoring how much time and attention I give each of my friends or household members, so that everyone gets the exact same amount of attention?

    – Am I always keeping track of how, how often, and why I discipline each child, in order to make sure each child gets the exact same amount of discipline?

    – Do I always make sure everyone has the exact same kind and amount of jelly on their toast in the morning?

    – Do I deny special accommodations to people who need them (or give those accommodations even to people who don’t need them), because it might seem unfair to the others?

    – ***If I notice that some people have (or want) something different (or a different amount of something), do I always say that it’s not (or wouldn’t be) fair?***

    If you answered yes to one or more of those questions, you are only reinforcing the idea that fairness means using the exact same tactics with everyone. There are two very important lessons you are not teaching when you do this. One of those lessons is that not everything is fair all the time. Sometimes two high school students apply to the same college, but only one gets accepted. Sometimes two people apply for the same job, but only one gets hired. The other lesson is that fairness doesn’t always mean treating everyone exactly the same. Adults and older children usually require less attention than babies and younger children do. People with certain health conditions sometimes require more attention than relatively healthy people do. People with certain special needs might require more attention than people without (or with less severe) special needs. Teenagers usually have a later internal clock than small children do, and may have to get out of bed earlier to go to school, so it may be better to just let them sleep in and stay up later on the weekends. Even if you are always making sure everyone has the exact same amount of syrup on their pancakes, apple slices with their lunch, chores on their list, among other things, it is almost certain that at least one person will still see the whole thing as unequal or unfair. When it comes to fairness, you, as the authority figure in the situation, need to use your adult mind. Not your elementary school mind.

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