It's not fair!

Category: Behavior and Discipline

How to explain the complicated issue of fairness to our kids!



As a PSP member asks:

"My daughter is really bent on the issue of FAIRNESS. "It's not fair-she got a bigger X than me.
"It's not fair-I don't want cheesey noodles."
(copy/paste, repeat)
I tell her, "You're right. Life is not fair, but usually it's "not fair: in your favor...Most kids don't have as many toys as you di so it's not fair to the other kids that you have so many." As you might imagine, this is not met with understanding and enlightenment, but "Stop saying that-it IS fair!"

Does anyone have a good way of helping explain about "fairness" to kids in a way that helps them prepare for life?"

Kings - Hip Hop Nutcracker




"Oooh boy, I hear you there. We have those conversations often at my house. (And in my classroom!) I try to acknowledge my daughter's (7.5 yrs old) feelings, using the reflecting back technique.
"I can see you're disappointed about ..... That sure is frustrating!
What do you think should be done about that?"

I am a fan of Adele Farber's book, How to talk so kids will listen and How to listen so kids will talk. I also like the developmental series by Ames, Your one year old, 2 year old etc on thru teens. One book per year. It is helpful to get a clue about the physical and mental changes kids go through
year by year.

I teach preschool (2's thru 4's), and have found over and over again that showing you _understand_ is more helpful than trying to explain why something must be some other way. Most children realize it's already going to be that "not fair" way, so a sympathetic ear and a we all take turns, or
perhaps so and so will share a blue crayon, toy, or whatever it is and gentle distraction after clearing the emotional air are my tactics.

Of course, sometimes we need a tantrum to let it all out. In that case, I let the child have a few minutes of real fussing. It doesn't usually last long, and then provide some comforting words and let them know that when they are ready to join us in such and such activity we'd be happy for them
to come on and participate.

I hope these hints help a little!"


"Maybe I am oversimplifying, since my kid is not at that stage yet, but what if you avoided the issue of fairness altogether in the response, i.e. It's not fair, hers is bigger--->"Wow, that must make you feel really mad/disappointed/jealous, etc. Maybe next time you'll luck into the bigger one." Or "If it's really important to you, ask her if she'd be willing to switch with you..."

It's not fair, I don't want cheesy noodles --->"I'm sorry you're upset, I thought you'd like it when I ordered it. I was only trying to make sure you'd be happy. Next time I'll double check what you'd like before I place the order."

As someone who continues to be fairness obsessed myself, I also find that it helps to think about what would make me feel better about the situation. This is also good training for adulthood. i.e. If I get bad treatment in a restaurant, I know I can't change it, even though it's not fair, but I also
know that complaining to the manager will make me feel better. Maybe brainstorm similar ideas with your daughter: "So, besides my taking her cake away and giving it to you, what might make you feel better about this situation?" Possible answers: "Tell her I am jealous and ask for a bite of her cake too", "You promise to be more careful next time you do the dividing", "We take turns choosing who gets which piece, and next time it's my turn", "Next time I help divide." You get the idea. Point is, you and she both know that life is not fair, that doesn't make her any less mad. But if she helps generate a solution, it can help her manage her own feelings.

Sometimes, though, you just have to let her be upset until the feelings go away. Good luck, smart kids are always the most stubborn!"


"I really like what your'e saying to your child. I thinks its a difficult concept for kids and adults. I still have trouble with it. Her reaction is normal upon hearing life is not fair ! I think saying it over and over is really the only way to enforce good habits and thoughts. I have been telling my now 15 year old to take her clothes out of the bathroom after a bath for about 10 years now and it only happens about 33% of the time. I think the consistency is the important. Also as your child grows they will get a better perspective of how fortunate they are.

Maybe just acknowledge her feelings in terms that don't include fairness, or comparison to others "oh, you wish you had a bigger one. yeah, that would be nice." "you don't want cheesy noodles, huh? you wish you could have something else. yeah, i understand"

I think verbal explanations of fairness are a bit above your child's developmental stage. she'll learn justice throughout her life through experience. It's a long complicated lesson. Right now it sounds like she's grabbed an expression that means things aren't the way she wants them. It might just be enough to validate her feelings -- rephrased in terms that impact her only -- rather than telling her she's wrong to feel the way she does.

Start by asking her what fair means. Then ask her for some examples of situation that are fair and some that aren't. My son is nearly 6 and he still doesn't grasp the difference between unfair and undesirable all the time, but I usually disarm him by asking if it is unfair or merely unpleasant. He went through a good couple of months of everything being "unfair". If asked whether it was fair that I took the time to make a food that he was now being nasty about, he would first say it wasn't, then when it became the base battle of the ills, he would say that of course it was fair, I am the
servant, using that exact term. Mommy went to Coca Bar while Daddy got to do the dinner-bath-bed routine that evening, which I am sure Daddy thought wasn't fair."