Photo: Merete L. Kropp

“That’s not fair!” Whether it is meant as a whine, an accusation or a protest, most parents hear this phrase more often than they might wish. To some, it may elicit pangs of regret and guilt while others may react with annoyance and exasperation at their children’s impudence.

Children seem to have an uncanny knack for detecting levels of fairness at a very early age. They notice when a sibling is served a bigger slice of cake or when another child has more juice in their cups. Some kids appear to keep a running tab on privileges bestowed to themselves as compared to others and have no qualms about voicing their opinions over perceived injustices. Parents may well marvel at their children’s burgeoning math abilities in gauging fairness: the acquisition of important developmental skills such as measuring, counting and comparing that lay the foundation for later success in school.

However, what is perhaps more fundamental within the context of child rearing, is the opportunity to practice the important life skills of kindness, patience and self-regulation. It is in childhood that we begin to understand that life may not always be fair and that we can learn to be content, and perhaps even happy, without experiencing every situation in exactly the same way as everyone else. Recent trends in parenting practices point to a desire to make life fair for all without singling out any one particular child.

Some examples of this trend include:

  • snacks doled out in prepackaged containers, ensuring that all have access to equal amounts of food and drink
  • participation trophies handed out at sporting and other events
  • requests and demands for extensions of invitations to birthday parties and play-dates to siblings
  • parent-provided special treats to a child left at home when another has an alternate outing (example: going out for ice cream because a sibling was invited to an event with a friend)
  • manipulating games to let children “win”

When we attempt to maintain a level playing field for our young children, whether within the family or within a classroom or team setting, our positive intentions of teaching fairness may backfire as we instead cultivate entitlement and selfishness. Developing a healthy sense of fairness and justice comes not from demanding to receive everything others have, but rather with a focus on others’ needs and feelings.

As parents we have tremendous influence over how our children perceive and interact with other people. We must do our part to ensure that our children have the ability to focus on more than themselves within the immediate moment and to find it within themselves to allow others to shine and experience enjoyment without sharing the spotlight.

Some things parents can do to help their children become more caring for others and less focused on fairness within the context of themselves are:

  • Model caring attitudes towards others. A parent’s actions speak louder than words! Children need to see caring attitudes and actions modeled by the adults they look up to. When parents model the behavior they wish to see in their children, children are more likely to engage in the target behavior.
  • Maintain consistent and responsive routines and expectations. Predictable daily routines provide children with structure that offer a framework for positive interactions that help children feel safe and secure. This framework offers the opportunity for children to have responsive interactions with caring adults who will ensure that their needs are being met and that they receive the appropriate levels of attention they need. Children who feel safe and secure within their home environment are more likely to develop empathy and caring attitudes towards others.
  • Share family meals and prioritize family times spent participating in joint activities.
  • Play board games and other age appropriate games that require friendly competition without manipulating the outcome. *Encourage turn taking and identify and praise patient behavior. *Build in age appropriate privilege for older children and offer varying degrees of expectations across ages. Stagger bedtimes and/or establish routines that give older children greater responsibility as well as rewards. Maintain the same standards as younger children reach the target age for the privileges to kick in.
  • Serve each other. One particular example I like is: one child pours (or cuts, scoops, serves) the treat and the other child chooses which cup/plate/bowl.
  • Incorporate a long-term perspectives in conversations. Perhaps things do not seem fair in the moment, but they tend to work out more evenly over time.
  • Label and validate the feelings behind the cry of, “It’s not fair!” A child who hears the words, “I understand that you are feeling sad (angry, jealous, disappointed etc.) right now, and that’s OK…” will grow to independently recognize the feelings over time.
  • Tie events together within conversations to remind children of past circumstances. “Remember last time when you lost and he won? This time it was your turn to win!”
  • Avoid the temptation to manipulate circumstances and level playing fields when children are young and impressionable and it is easier to control situations.

Children will have an easier time learning about fairness, kindness and patience when they are young, and it will become nearly, if not completely, impossible to control situations once children are older. The manner in which your children will handle disappointment and rejection as they grow older will directly reflect the behaviors they acquire as young children. 

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