Lessons From the Childrearing Trenches: Fair is NOT Equal

A spate of parents I’ve seen recently have expressed a lot of frustration over the fact that every time they say “no” to their kids, they are accused of being unfair. This is a major trigger for parents, sending them into reactive mode. They either start to defend their decisions to their children or they give in. Both responses validate that their child’s assessment of the situation is accurate or reasonable, when in most cases it is decidedly not. For example: Jonah, 6, who protests that it’s not fair that his older brother, Sam (age 9), gets to stay up later; Stella, 4, who explains that it’s not fair that she has to sleep alone when her parents get to sleep together; and, Lucca, 5, who insists that it’s not fair that he has to share the Magnatiles with his brother who isn’t as serious about building as Lucca.

Just because in our logical minds these protestations can seem irrational doesn’t mean that your child doesn’t actually feel an inequity is taking place. In some cases, it is just a strategy to get you to change your mind and give in to something your child wants. Kids are clever and will use whatever tactics work to reach their goal. But in many cases, on the face of it, the rule does seem unfair to children—that a sibling gets to stay up later or that parents get to sleep together but the child has to sleep alone.

And sometimes there are contextual factors that we need to be sensitive to. For example, I recently met with parents who have a 6-year-old, Liam, who constantly feels like a victim. As we unpacked how he may have developed this sense of himself, it turns out that when he was a toddler, his older brother was diagnosed with a serious illness and went through three years of intensive treatment. The parents had a large group of friends and family to help. But Liam likely sensed that his parents were distracted (understandably) and consequently started building a narrative that his needs were not as important as those of his older brother. Add to that the fact that Liam now has two younger siblings, including a new baby, amplifying his worry about whether he will get the attention he wants.

It is important to be sensitive to the underlying forces that influence your children’s behavior and the lens through which they filter their experiences. Even if your kids have not gone through a family trauma like this, many experience tough periods when they are trying to make sense of their place in the family. Temperament is also a factor: children who are inflexible by nature tend to develop very fixed ideas about how things should be and thus have a very hard time when things don’t go according to their desire or plan. This often results in the refrain: “IT’S NOT FAIR!”

The goal is to help children see that not getting everything they want is about healthy and developmentally appropriate limits, not about love or favoritism. Liam’s parents want him to create a new narrative that is not one of “I am a victim, always being deprived”, but one that sounds more like, “When I can’t have everything the way I want it, and my parents set limits, it doesn’t mean I am not loved or valued.” Mature as this outlook may seem, over time, children can and do internalize this very important concept.

Below is a roadmap for responding to protestations of "it’s unfair!" that enables you to be empathetic while maintaining the limits that you feel are important for your child:

  • Acknowledge your child’s feelings. This is always the first step: “I know you feel it’s unfair that Sam gets to stay up later. You don’t like that rule. I totally understand why you would see it that way.” If you skip this step, your child is likely to keep upping the ante to show you just how fiercely unfair he believes this rule to be. Remember, feelings are not the problem, it’s what kids do with their feelings that can be problematic. The more you validate their emotional experience, the more likely it is that they will calm down. Being heard and understood is a salve. Labeling feelings is also the first step in helping children learn to recognize and manage their emotions.

  • Let him know that fair is not equal. “Mommy and daddy are in charge of making rules for each child based on what you each need to grow healthy and strong. Sam gets to stay up later because his body doesn’t need as much sleep. That’s what happens when you get older. He went to bed at 8 when he was your age and you’ll be able to stay up until 9 when you are his age. So, you’re right, it is not equal.” It is critical that this is communicated matter-of-factly, to show respect for your child by explaining your thinking, not to defend your rule. If you start justifying your limits to your children, you are communicating that it is valid to call them into question. This erodes your authority and gives your child inappropriate control. It also reinforces the power of the "IT'S UNFAIR!" protestation.

  • Let your child know it’s okay if he doesn’t agree. “I know you don’t like this rule and don’t agree that it’s fair. That’s okay. You don’t have to agree with or like it.” It’s very important to avoid the trap of trying to convince your child of the wisdom or rightness of your limits. This is a common pitfall for many parents. It puts the child in the driver's seat as it conveys that the rule is only legitimate if the child agrees with it. It's important to get comfortable with the fact that just because your child doesn't like a limit doesn't mean it's not good for him.

When you consistently respond in this way to irrational proclamations of “it’s not fair!” and keep reminding your children that fair is not equal, at some point simply repeating this mantra suffices. They know exactly what it means and they are more likely to accept the limit and move on more quickly.