“Mum-meeee! It’s not fair!”
How do you react when you hear this high-pitched, dramatic, desperate appeal from your beloved child? Have you been tempted to say “Life isn’t fair” (isn’t that what your parents told you?), or tried to rectify the alleged inequality and found neither approach very satisfactory?
Life is not fair!
The first thing to teach our children is that things are not always fair. A brother gets his mother’s help with his homework, while his twin sister gets no help with hers. One child gets a place in the school play, another does not. Two teenagers apply for a university place, one gets it and the other does not. As adults we know life is not fair but we can so easily add to the impression that it should be, even conditioning our children to think it is. And we don’t even realise we are doing it! How often have we said to a child that it’s not fair if one child gets a different treat to another, or if one gets to hold the pet rabbit for longer than the other. We buy a toy for one and then buy a toy for the other to make sure we are being fair.
We are bound to fail
The problem is that in trying to be fair we sometimes try to make things equal. We are implementing fairness at the level of a six year old! In their eyes, to be fair you must give exactly the same to each child. Six year olds have a heightened sense of fairness, particularly in relation to themselves. They are not yet very good at impulse control and understanding, and they are still learning about sharing and taking turns. They are also learning by copying us (no pressure!) so we need to use adult reasoning rather than six year old reasoning!
What to do when we can’t be fair..
Show them you understand their frustration. Give each child exactly the same if you can and if it’s appropriate to do so: that’s only fair! But it’s not always possible or appropriate. When young children believe that fair and equal are the same we need to start by showing them that not everything should be equal. For example, the child who hasn’t got a new pair of shoes (because he hasn’t yet grown out of his) needs some recognition of the upset he is feeling when his sister gets hers. Logic will not help you here! Instead, start by acknowledging his hurt feelings: “Ben, I know it can be hard watching your sister get new shoes when you’re not. Even though you know you don’t need new shoes because yours fit, it still upsets you”. Your understanding and acceptance of his hurt will definitely help. If empathy is not enough, then find an opportunity for some one-on-one time together or offer to do something of his choosing. This will help to dispel any resentment and hurt feelings.
Think about what you say. Another way to help children start to recognize that things do not always need to be equal is to give instructions separately. For example, instead of saying “ Time to leave now!” say “Sarah, please take these bags to the car. And Ben, please turn off the TV and the lights before we go. Thanks guys!”
Don’t argue! If your child feels aggrieved, don’t argue with the feeling, however illogical it may be. That just makes your child feel wrong for feeling it. The feeling is real and understandable even if their behaviour causes problems. If the child’s emotion is not acknowledged, the negative feeling can linger, suppressed but ready to resurface at the slightest provocation (“I knew you’d say no!”).
Don’t feel you have to solve everything or take it personally. Children should be left to resolve minor disputes themselves. For bigger arguments where they struggle to solve the problem, rather than attempt to resolve it yourself, try reflecting and summarising each view point; “ So, Ben you wanted to use the ipad but Sarah you think it’s your turn.” Then invite them to come up with a solution, encouraging them by making suggestions if necessary.
They will learn! If you can’t or don’t want to treat each child equally, they will survive! Except in cases of extreme inequity, your understanding and acceptance of their disappointment and their expression of it (“It’s not fair!”), will help them to accept inequality. Maybe not immediately, but eventually.
Explain equality vs fairness. What else can do you do when you can’t or don’t want to treat your children equally? Show them why they really wouldn’t want everything to be equal. Try making this fun! “So, if you are to be treated equally, Ben you will go to bed at the same time as your younger sister. You will both go to ballet, karate, craft and football club. Ben, I know you want a lizard but you will have a rabbit because your sister has one. OR you could be treated fairly. Ben you get to stay up later than Sarah because you are older. You get extra TV time tonight because your team is playing and Sarah gets to play her computer games for longer than usual because her friend is coming round…. Which do you think works best: fair or equal?”
The difference between equality and fairness is well illustrated for young children in this video of Sonny Varela reading from his book “Fair is Fair”. Perhaps share it with your children.
Treat them as individuals. Finally, and most importantly, explain to them that you do give them the same. Tell them that they get exactly the same love from you. When children complain that something isn’t fair they are often equating whatever is being given with love. Your love and attention is what they want above all else. So explain to them that giving your love equally means giving them what they need when they need it. Of course, this may be different at any given time. One may need help with their homework, another may need a cuddle and quiet time on the sofa. Show them how they are loved uniquely by focussing on their individual needs and telling them why each of them is special to you. “You are the only you in the whole wide world! No one else has your smile or your sense of humour. I love spending time with you.”
Everyone gets what they need when they need it – and that’s fair!
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