[Week 21 of 52 Weeks to a Better Relationship With Your Child]
Why do children say its not fair?
The claim, “That’s not fair!” will almost certainly come out of a child’s mouth at some point. A parent should be prepared to respond. It is important to address the child’s claim without being manipulated by it. So the first step is for the parent to have a clear idea of what fairness is and how that can be applied to family life.
My father did a good job of dealing with my concerns about fairness as a child, so I felt prepared for this as a parent. When it came up with my children, I told them that they were each different and so we would be meeting their needs differently. Not all things could be equal, because they were each unique. It was made clear that we loved them all equally, which was why we would go to the effort to make individualized decisions for them.
It can be helpful to read through the definitions of fair in the dictionary. For this application, it can be summarized as meaning “just and honest, according to rules (of the household and of how we should all treat one another), and without giving preference to one’s own interests.” If a child is old enough, this can be a jumping off point for helping them understand decisions that they claim are unfair.
A child typically means all or one of three things when they claim something is not fair:
- I want it, too. (Or don’t want it, too)
- I don’t understand.
- Do you love me?
Manipulation or honest question?
Even a young child can often benefit from pondering their own claim. A parent can calmly and confidently ask the child to explain himself. What is not fair and why does he think it is not fair? The point is not to argue, but the child may need some help realizing that you are not asking because you need to defend your decision. The point is so that they can learn. Before a fruitful discussion can proceed, a child has to be able to be honest.
A parent can guide them to giving honest answers by not being defensive or angry. If the child is stubborn about answering, then the parent can decline to talk about it at the moment, but indicate availability when the child will be humble and kind.
Who deserves what?
If the primary concern is jealousy (1. I want it, too), it should not be too difficult to come up with examples of times when the complaining child got something or was able to do something when someone else didn’t. Does everyone have to have all the exact same things – exact same number of clothes, exact amount of time talking with friends, or the exact same flavor of ice cream – for everything to be fair?
If it is an issue between siblings, the matter of age is important. Younger children are often not physically capable of the same work. They also need more direct supervision. An older child should be able to admit that being older gradually increases responsibility and opportunity.
Sometimes the responsibility of age means working for something that was previously just given to him. Or it might mean being allowed to do something that wasn’t safe before. This is just one aspect of getting your child to recognize the differences in individuals. It quickly becomes clear if claims about fairness are about selfishness.
Saying the we deserve something is another version of the accusation of unfairness. Something is only deserved if it has been earned. Respect is only deserved if it is earned. An item is only deserved if it is an agreed upon reward or paid for by the child. An injury is only deserved is a person was doing something stupid that would very likely result in injury. Interestingly, the word just is a synonym for both fair and deserve.
From this it can be pointed out that as long as the child is being cared for by the parent, they don’t actually deserve much. I have gently pointed out to my children that none of us really deserve much, for many of our own opportunities to earn things are beyond our control. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be responsible with our opportunities or respect the efforts of others, but it does mean that we should be humble about our claims of deserving anything.
Sometimes life is confusing
Part of a child’s problem is often time preference or lack of understanding time preference. Children live more in the here and now than adults. This can be an advantage and a disadvantage. I’m sure we all remember waiting for things as a child and feeling like time would NEVER pass! Having to wait for anything basically meant not having it.
The younger a child is, the more he feels that when he misses a good thing the opportunity is gone forever. For most things that a child is concerned about, this is not true. Parents can help a child realize what can be looked forward to. We should teach our children to enjoy anticipation.
Still, sometimes some people do get things that others don’t and for no apparent reason. This will probably only come up when a child is older and begins to be more aware of the world outside their immediate sphere. Understanding how to deal with this is crucial to living a happy life.
A good book to read out loud with your child on this is The Quest for Cosmic Justice, by Thomas Sowell. It is a short book and will yield good discussion. I have often read these sorts of books aloud with my children when they were growing up. Meal time is a good time to read a short, digestible section (yes, I know…) and then talk about it.
It can be a case of the seen and unseen. Is the child aware of the differences that have led to a certain result? People have
- different traits,
- different opportunities,
- different choices
- different challenges
It is a good habit to stop and realize what you don’t know before claiming something isn’t fair.
What about love?
Love is not fair. Love forgives. Love shows mercy. Love protects the inexperienced. In many ways, love is the opposite of fairness. Love cannot be deserved, as that is not the nature of it.
It is important for your child to understand, love does not manipulate. Love does not try to use guilt to get it’s own way. Plus, a child cannot rightly claim to fully comprehend what a parent must decide, in love, for each child.
A child does not have to admit that a parent loves him for it to be true. A child is not in a position to define a parent’s love. It may be necessary to stand your ground on this.
Worldwide fairness and the children in Africa
If all your child means by fairness is that he wants everything to be equal, you might ask if he wants to ship most of his stuff to Africa. I know the cliche’ about “the children in Africa would appreciate your dinner” is kind of silly, but I think this response to misconstrued ideas of fairness is different. Or you could just as easily find someone closer who doesn’t have the exact same things and thinks it would be fair if he did.
Fairness, like many good concepts, is often distorted for selfish reasons. Like many virtues, it is not meant for us to demand of others, but rather for us to learn to develop in ourselves. When your child claims something isn’t fair, it is a perfect opportunity to help him understand that fairness is probably more complicated than he realizes. To really be fair, he needs to consider other people as much as himself and be willing to honestly evaluate the details.