What’s Fair Anyway?

Today’s quote is from the youngest client ever to make it into my journal, and although Mia was tiny in size, her quote illustrates a very big idea.

Fair isn’t right and I HATE FAIR! (Mia, age 4)

To be honest, I cannot even remember what Mia was so upset about. After all, I worked with her about ten years ago. I do remember, however, why I included her comment in my journal; it brings to mind one of the most difficult issues parents of multiple children face: how to treat all of their children fairly.

Right off the bat, it is important to think about what “fair” means. To me, as a parent and as a child psychologist, it does not mean “equal.” To me, fair does not mean treating all children “the same.” Think about it. What sense would it make to treat two (or more) unique individuals – with different personalities, needs, strengths, weaknesses, etc. – the same ways?

Here are some of the ways that parents express their internal struggle over fairness:

We let his sister get her license when she was 16; isn’t it only fair to do the same for Joe?

How could we possibly justify private school for Sarah when both of our other kids graduated from the public high school?

I feel guilty for spending so much time with Jane on her homework when her twin goes off to his room and does all his work independently.

Children don’t make this any easier for parents with their frequent complaints about unfairness. Here are some prototypical comments kids make about this issue:

My brother gets away with murder and I get in trouble for every little thing I do.

Why should I be expected to get better grades than my sister?

My brother is definitely the favorite.

Now look back at the sample parent comments above and think about these questions: What if Joe is a more impulsive kid than his sister? What if he has a history of breaking rules and acting recklessly? What if Sarah is more likely to thrive in a school with smaller classes and a more progressive approach to learning? What if her siblings did great in public school but she is not doing well at all? What if Jane has trouble with focus? What if academics come easily to her twin? In any of these scenarios would it make sense for these children’s parents to treat them “the same”?

Which leads me to the definition of fairness that makes most sense to me. I’ve already said that I don’t think it means treating everyone the same or equally. Instead, I prefer to think of fairness as meeting each child’s individual needs. If a child needs extra homework support, the parent provides it. If one child will flourish in the smaller classrooms of an independent school while another is flourishing in the local public school, then the two children attend different schools. If one child is responsible and rule-following enough to handle the responsibility of a driver’s license at sixteen and the other has behaved too recklessly to be trusted driving a car at that age, then different rules about driving apply. This makes far more sense than treating all children the same.

Even parents who are comfortable with the idea that fair does not mean equal, but rather meeting every child’s individual needs, have trouble communicating this concept to a child who feels he is being treated unfairly. Try something like this:

I understand that this feels unfair to you. You think you should be able to get your license now because you are the age your sister was when she got hers. For me, it’s not that simple. You got into trouble at school just last month for climbing up to the roof and you’ve been missing curfew. These things make me worried that you are not yet responsible enough to handle driving. Show me that you are ready to handle the responsibility of driving by staying out of trouble and making curfew, and I will know it’s time. This is exactly what I did with your sister; I let her start driving alone because I knew she was behaving responsibly.

Perfect wording does not guarantee that your children will accept what they perceive as unfair treatment graciously. Still, it is important that you have clarity in your own head about your decision to treat your children differently – that you are confident that you are doing what is right for each of your children. When you have such clarity, you can feel good about even very difficult parenting decisions and are far less likely to yield to a child’s demand for equal treatment.

[Names and all potentially identifying information have been changed.]


About Dr. Sayers

I am a child psychologist and mother of two. This blog is about the lessons we, as parents, can learn about parenting from the things that child clients have told me over my 20 years in private practice. I continue to work with children and families at Southampton Psychiatric Associates (www.southamptonpsychiatric.com) which serves Bucks, eastern Montgomery, and northeast Philadelphia counties in Pennsylvania. In addition, I train psychology graduate students and psychiatry residents at Temple University.
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One Response to What’s Fair Anyway?

  1. Pingback: The Good Child | What Kids Want Us to Know

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