What to say when they say “It’s Not Fair!”
“Yeah, well, I got news for you: Life isn’t fair, so SUCK IT UP! If it were, our private chef would be making you lunch and the chauffeur would drive you to school and I would still be ASLEEP instead of having this conversation. AGAIN!”
No, I didn’t say that to my twin girls this morning, but I thought it so loudly they may have heard. What the ladies found so unconscionable was that after they had bickered for 20 minutes about who got to wear the pink sweatshirt with the fairy on it, I told them neither of them could. We then discussed how frustrating it is that we can’t always get what we want, and I explained the reasoning behind my entirely equitable decision. I knew they weren’t happy, I told them, but short of magically pulling an identical fairy sweatshirt out of my behind (gross-out faces ensued), it was the best I could do in the two minutes we had before we had to leave. Nonetheless, they harrumphed and stomped around and insisted that I was perpetrating a grave injustice against them and possibly children everywhere. This, before I’d had my coffee. But at least they weren’t arguing with each other.
It was a welcome respite, considering that Sasha and Vivian, who are 6, have recently found the following unfair (partial list): that Vivian’s class went to the museum, and Sasha’s didn’t; that Sasha’s class got to eat the marshmallows they used for making 3-D geometric shapes with toothpicks, while Vivian’s class didn’t even do that activity; that Viv’s tooth fell out first, even though Sasha was born 90 seconds before Vivian and so is “older”; that Sasha’s glasses are purple and not “boring old gold,” like Vivian’s; that Sasha “got to have” alone time with Mommy when she stayed home from school vomiting into the Hello Kitty trash bin; that Mommy sits on Viv’s bed to kiss her good night, but Sasha only gets kissed from a standing position (Sasha sleeps on the top bunk, which is hard for me to climb on). By the way, it also is sometimes unfair to Vivian that Sasha gets the top. It makes me insane.
I could go on, but you likely have a version of this fairness drama unfolding in your own home. The bones of contention can be just about anything — material (“Her lollipop is bigger!”), experiential (“He always gets to stay up later than I do!”), even metaphysical (“You laugh at her jokes but never mine!”). And, sorry, but parents of only children aren’t exempt, because having to share toys on playdates can seem unfair to some singletons, as can not getting to do or have what their friends have when they reach school age.
Clearly, kids’ concept of fairness differs greatly from ours, and it changes over time. “For very young children, like three or four, fairness is just desire: I want what I want, and if I don’t get it, that’s not fair,” says Judi Smetana, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester in New York. For a period after that, until they’re anywhere from 7 to 11, fairness means equality — the same thing as someone else at the same time, or pretty darn close. Most children, when they get to school, will start to recognize some nuance, like it’s fair if two kids have different things of similar value (a chocolate and a strawberry ice cream, for instance), but the intensity of the issue is just as great. “Depending on how diverse their school is, they’re probably going to have major comparisons along socioeconomic lines,” says Robert Myers, Ph.D., an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry and human behavior at the University of California at Irvine School of Medicine and webmaster of Childdevelopment info.com. This complicates things even more, as a 7-year-old generally does not yet have the perspective to understand why one family may be able to afford things that another cannot.
It’s not until middle school or early adolescence that most kids can be more logical about fairness, says Myers. That includes, say, accepting the idea that her little brother might need more attention from you sometimes, and while that’s not thrilling, it is fair. Not that it’s easy getting to that place.
“Sometimes I think it’s about ‘Who do you love more?'” says Andrea Kane, the Atlanta mom of Carina, 7, and Josephine, 9. Her daughters protest perceived inequities in how many sleepovers the other gets, who got which treat and how big it was, and dozens of other issues. Which is why Kane tries hard to show them there are, in fact, no inequalities on that front. “If I bring up something I love about Carina that Josie doesn’t have,” she says, “I’ll make sure to point out that I love Josie for who Josie is, too.” Then again, sometimes it’s just about a pink sweatshirt with a fairy on it, or anything that doesn’t have a duplicate. Vivian Scheidt of Seattle, a mom of two girls, 6 and 8, recalls a particularly baffling fight over a silver cup that had contained Hanukkah dreidels. “As soon as the cup became interesting to one child, the other child wanted it. They created the inequality.”
So what’s a parent with a caffeine-withdrawal headache to do to keep the peace? Take a deep breath, and remember that all this arguing is part of learning how to be a good person. Several studies have shown that kids’ early sense of fairness may have deep roots in human survival — if everyone treats everyone fairly, the group will continue to thrive. But whether a child develops a strong sense of fairness and empathy has partly to do with how parents handle things, says Myers. Below, a few strategies that can help your kids move in the right direction.
Explain Yourself Understanding that you’re not being arbitrary doesn’t always soothe kids’ immediate sense of injustice (see sweatshirt anecdote, above), but walking them through your logic isn’t a waste of breath, either. “It’s a good way to stimulate their development and understanding of fairness,” says Smetana. Try something like “The reason I let him stay up later than you is because younger kids need more sleep than older ones. When you’re his age, you will be able to stay up until the same time.” Reassure them that you’ve given the issue of fairness and their concerns a lot of thought. Myers suggests saying, “You have to realize that I treat everybody fairly, but I treat both of you differently depending on your needs.” Eventually, they’ll catch on.
Point Out What’s Really Important For a while, when the girls were 4 and we were having our alone-time afternoons, they each asked that we do exactly the same activity and eat the same food at the same restaurant. “Vivian saw the monkeys, and it’s not fair if I don’t get to see the monkeys,” Sasha would say. No amount of playing up the rockin’ reptiles (that Vivian didn’t see) could dissuade her, and things got mighty boring, at least for me. Because it’s still tricky for kids this age to get that “fair” doesn’t mean “identical,” Myers says it might have helped to remind them that even if they did different activities, the prize was Mommy time, which they both got in equal measure.
Listen to Their Feelings You know you’re being fair, and, deep down, they may even know it, too, but they’re still plenty pissed off. Joel Jacobs, a dad in Berkeley, CA, recalls an incident in which his 8-year-old daughter, Talia, didn’t want to go to a holiday gathering at her Aunt Nancy’s house. “She thought it was unfair that her views were being ignored,” he says. Rather than dragging her to the car (which we all resort to in a pinch), he encouraged her to talk about her feelings. “I saw that she was conflicted about it,” says Jacobs. It wasn’t that Talia didn’t want to see her aunt; it was just that, because her mom had been seriously ill that year, she wanted the holiday to feel like it used to, before all the tumult. That meant spending the holiday at home. Jacobs then asked her to imagine how her aunt might feel if they canceled at the last minute, and she came around.
Bounce It Back to Them If they disagree with your strategy, asking them what they think would be fair works shockingly well sometimes. When one of my girls came to me insisting that it was her turn to pick what they watch on TV, I said (truthfully) that I didn’t know whose turn it was, but that they needed to come up with a solution. (I said this not because I’m such a genius but because I had referee fatigue.) Within a minute, they decided to watch what one girl wanted for half the time, then switch. Bonus: Because it was their rule, they stuck to it, letter and spirit. This works differently but just as well with older kids. “Sometimes they come up with a great idea together, but other times they realize that the situation is, in fact, fair exactly the way it is,” says Jacobs of his daughters.
End the Conversation If the protestations continue even after you’ve explained why something is fair and allowed the aggrieved party to have his say, give yourself the last word. Telling him to SUCK IT UP! isn’t ideal, but something along the lines of “You’re right, life can be disappointing sometimes; we all hate that” works. It’s tempting to give in, but resist if you’re able; otherwise, it sends the message that you’ll accommodate him if he persists in playing the unfair card. “Something can be fair even if they don’t understand it,” says Kane.
Don’t Expect Everyone (or Sometimes Anyone) To Be Happy With little kids, “you’re never going to satisfy them,” says Judith Sansone, a mom in San Francisco who has two girls, 4 and 6. “They are irrational beings — their needs are so immediate.” Even when they’re a bit older, you still may not be able to, at least not entirely.
Scheidt, the Seattle mom, recalls the time she got her girls identical hats because each always seemed to covet what the other had; besides, her younger daughter wanted to look like the older one. Wouldn’t you know it? Her older daughter informed her that it wasn’t fair that she had to wear the same thing as her little sister just so her sister would feel the situation was fair, which was, well, a fair point. “There is nothing I can do about that. They’re the keepers of equality, and they’re always looking for unfairness,” Scheidt says.
Happily, other parents and Ph.D.’s say that the issue fades somewhat on a day-to-day level as kids’ understanding matures, usually by age 11 or 12 (thanks, in part, to your having the fairness conversation. Again.). But brace yourself: As they grow into adults, they tend to remember the perceived inequities, not all the times you twisted yourself into a pretzel to do the fair thing. Indeed, Kane says she felt for a long time that her younger sister always got the goodies when they were growing up, a feeling her older daughter has shared, despite the fact that Kane knows she’s being equitable. “I look at my girls and think, You’ll only get it when you have kids.” That’s called karma, and while it can be a bitch, it’s totally fair.