The Perfect Response to "It’s Not Fair!"

Karen Patten

After I told my boys that we were leaving in 5, I asked my  younger son to come downstairs and put on his shoes, I took a quick moment to straighten up the kitchen in a short-lived silent bliss. From upstairs, “Why does he get to have extra time playing? ” pierced the silence. Mom-meeeee! (Drawn out for extra drama.) It’s not fair!!! You never give me extra time! So he has to come down right now just like me. Or it’s not fair!

The entire lovely message was delivered in one ear splitting whinny, squeaky, high-pitched shriek of a voice.

I loved this easy response to children when they are complaining that 'It's Not Fair!" www.themidlifemamas.com

But it doesn’t end there. Now it’s my older son’s turn. He chimes in from the playroom. It is too fair! You always get more time with mommy when she reads you bedtime stories. Last night, you got more dessert than me! AND last weekend, you stayed on the playground when I had already gotten in the car! So I get to stay and play. It is too fair!

How many times have you heard the rallying cry “It’s not fair!!!” I always want to repeat my mother’s typical response: “Life isn’t fair.”  In my head, I always responded: “So? You aren’t the world and you should be fair anyway.” Logic just didn’t work on me. Nevertheless, I tried her response on my boys once or twice. It was significantly less satisfying than I hoped it would be. And it wasn’t satisfying for one main reason.

What if my son was right? What if I was unfair?

Children believe that fair and equal are the same, which we know isn’t true. So, in my children’s eyes, if I am not giving them EXACTLY the same thing, I’m being unfair. So I take a three step approach.

Parents Unknowingly Add Fuel to the “It’s Not Fair” Fire

My first step is to try to show them that everything shouldn’t be equal.

Unfortunately, as parents, in trying to be fair, we sometimes try to make things equal. I know that when I buy my older son clothes (because he’s outgrown last year’s), I almost always buy something for my younger son (even though he has plenty of hand me downs). Part of that may be my love of shopping….*hangs head* But when I do this, I’m conditioning the boys to think that if one gets something, the other must necessarily get something too. Shoes for one? Shoes for the other. Toy for one? Toy for the other. I don’t do all of these, but I’m definitely guilty of some of them some of the time…

Another trick to help children start to recognize that things do not always need to be equal is to give instructions separately. For example, instead of saying “Kids! It’s time to leave the pool!” You might say “Justin, will you please put on your shoes and carry the pool bag out to the car for me? And Taylor, will you please quickly say goodbye to your friends and then throw our trash away? Thanks guys!”

It’s Not Fair: Planet Equal & Planet Fair

Next, I pull out the examples of Planet Equal and Planet Fair to remind them why they really wouldn’t want everything to be equal:

Hello, everyone! Welcome to Planet Equal, where every sibling gets treated, well, equally. Here are some things you can expect:

  • You’ll go to bed at the same time as your little sister, even if your favorite team goes into overtime on a Friday night.
  • You’ll take ballet, karate, and piano (in addition to playing baseball), because your siblings all do these things.
  • Want a dog? Tough luck. Your older sister has a cat and now you’re going to get one too.

On the other side of the solar system, we’ve got Planet Fair, where:

  • Older kids can stay up later than younger ones, since young kids need more sleep.
  • Your sister gets new skis because she’s joined the ski club, while you get a new camera because you’ve joined the school newspaper.

Which planet would YOU rather live on? (cite)

My Explanation of Why Equal Is Fair

And finally, if all rational thought fails in the moment, and they refuse to believe that things needn’t be equal to be fair – I explain to them that I am fair because I actually do give them exactly the same. I confess. I delight in the confused looks that appear on their faces at this point. But it’s my little trick.

I explain that they get exactly the same love from me. And I think this is actually what children are uneasy about when they complain that something isn’t fair. They equate whatever is being “given” with love. In short, they are afraid that they are loved less if their cookie has fewer chocolate chips.

I explain that giving my love equally means that I give them each everything they need when they need it. What they need may be different at any given time, but they always have what they need when they need it. If one needs shoes, he gets shoes. If one needs a little more time transitioning to a new activity, he gets a couple extra minutes in the playroom while the little one gets ready. If the other needs quiet time, he gets quiet time.

[bctt tweet=”In our house, everyone gets exactly the same thing: what they need when they need it. And that’s fair. #fairisntequal” username=”SpoilMy”]

Here’s a sweet video with author Sonny Varela reading his book Fair is Fair that I think does a great job capturing similar ideas about equality and fairness! -let your kids listen along!

So do you remember my older son’s complaints? Here were my responses:

Son: You always get time when mommy reads you stories at bedtime!

Me: Ummmm…well, yeah. He can’t read. And, since you’re older and you can read, don’t you enjoy getting a few extra minutes under your covers with your book and flashlight?

Son: Last night, you got more dessert than me!

Me: Again, yes. You already had a cupcake at a school birthday party. Aren’t you lucky that you got a party at school today when your brother didn’t?

Son: AND last weekend, you stayed on the playground when I had already gotten in the car!

Me: Yep! And who got to hear my lecture about coming when he’s asked? You? I think not.

5 Comments

  1. Leanne Strong on August 29, 2017 at 9:31 am

    If you think about it, a lot of adults tell kids it’s not fair if one kid gets a different treat. Or an extra turn on the monkey bars at recess. Or extra time to finish a task or assignment. Some teachers will deny special accommodations to students who need them, because “it wouldn’t be fair to the other kids.” When adults say this, they are implementing fairness at the level of a 6-year-old. There are 2 very important lessons children might not be learning when adults do this. One of those lessons is that not everything is fair all the time. Sometimes two people apply for the same job, but only one of them gets hired. Sometimes two kids apply to the same college, but only one gets accepted. Sometimes two people are exposed to the same illness, but only one gets sick. Another one of those lessons is as you mentioned, fairness doesn’t always mean using the exact same tactics with everyone. Babies and younger children usually require more attention than older children do. People with certain health conditions might require more attention than relatively healthy people. People with certain special needs might require more attention than people without (or with less serious) special needs. If someone needs certain accommodations, it’s usually because that is what that person needs in order to be successful, and you want as many people as possible to feel successful. Right? As the adult (or figure of authority) in the situation, you need to use your adult reasoning when it comes to fairness. NOT your 7-year-old reasoning



  2. Dr. Shawne on August 29, 2017 at 9:38 pm

    Hi Karen.. we shared your article on our Facebook Live tonight.. you are a hoot and an angel wrapped into one. Joy, Dr. Shawne
    https://www.facebook.com/ProjectForgive/videos/1589616117779140/



    • Karen Patten on August 29, 2017 at 10:29 pm

      So sweet! Thank you – can’t wait to come listen in 🙂



  3. 5 Quick Wins for Moms to STOP the Overwhelm Today on October 15, 2017 at 9:58 pm

    […] with a lot of chatter, for a while, I heard a lot of “It’s Not Fair!!!” And I learned that responding with, “Life’s not fair!” was not nearly as […]



  4. […] They may not always think things are fair, but I always remember that fair is not equal. Hopefully, everyone gets what they need when they need it. One of our favorite stories describes it perfectly! […]



Welcome!

Hi, I’m Karen, the Atlanta mama, writer, and creator at Intentional Family Life. I’m a passionate advocate for intentional living so that you can experience all that you deserve for yourself and your family. Here, I inspire moms to chose what matters most and then to only do the things that move them closer to what matters most. Read More About Karen…

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