What Is Fair to a Young Child?
Date: January 1, 2007
Q: My daughter Carol is 7, and my son Jay is 4. They keep complaining about something not being fair. I am ready to pull my hair out! How can I teach them that life isn’t always fair?
A: If only we had a nickel for every time children say something isn’t fair! Helping children always starts from an understanding of their perspective. As a basis for our guidance in this article, we explore some of the meanings of fairness to young children.
What is fair to a young child?
The following illustrations are examples of the ways children commonly perceive “unfairness.”
• Three-year-old Polly had a new infant sister Natalia. Polly voiced many grievances: It was not fair that Mommy interrupted her bedtime ritual to attend to Natalia and it was not fair that Natalia could nurse and Polly couldn’t. Polly continued to protest even though her parents patiently explained that she was a big girl who got to do big girl things and that when she was a little girl, Polly had received the same attention and feeding that Natalia was now receiving.
• Seven-year-old James wanted to watch certain videos that his parents decided were too mature for him. James was certain that this was unfair, since his good friends, Joe and Koren, were permitted to watch the videos. James was not soothed by his parents’ explanation that all parents do what they feel is best and they feel the videos .
Although Polly cognitively understood the different pleasures and privileges of big girls and infants, this comparison had less emotional impact. There was a part of Polly that longed for the grown-up pleasures of the 3-year-old and the regressive pleasures of infancy. Furthermore, her sister was competing for the attention of her beloved mother. (What did her sister’s urgent needs have to do with her treasured bedtime ritual?) Her parents were asking her to accept having just some rather than all available pleasures and to share them rather than having them all to herself. From the standpoint of a 3-year-old, this is simply unfair.
James was in a quandary about the videos. He valued, respected and depended upon his parents’ judgment and protection, but he wanted to see the videos. He believed Joe and Koren’s parents were sensible and loving, like his own, and he didn’t understand why his parents couldn’t protect him, make good judgments and choose to think like his friends’ parents.
The main point of these illustrations of situations is that when a child feels that something is “not fair,” the child’s complaint generally expresses something different than what adults mean when they complain about unfairness.
Children need help to accept perceptions of unfairness.
Because children aren’t usually talking about unfairness in the adult sense of the concept, parental explanations about fairness may not address the heart of the issue. Therefore, we recommend that parents try to address specifically the concerns that are expressed in the child’s complaint. Let’s return to our two examples to illustrate how a parent might helpfully respond to a child’s protests.
• Polly wasn’t able to constructively process her parent’s explanation that the situation was actually fair since both Polly and Natalia had particular things that they could do with their parents. Polly’s mother then tried to speak to Polly’s hurt, saying, “Polly, I know that it upsets you when I have to take care of Natalia in the middle of your bedtime story. I know that it is very disappointing to have your story interrupted, and that it makes you angry. I will do my best not to interrupt our story time, but if I do have to take care of Natalia, I know how hard that it will be for you.” Polly threw herself into her mommy’s arms, crying out, “Why do we have to have a sister?” An avenue was now opened for a fuller discussion of Polly’s mixed feelings about her sister and for an important experience of emotional honesty and intimacy between mother and daughter during an emotionally trying time.
• James’s parents sidestepped the issue of unfairness, because they recognized that he was expressing a protest rather than a considered statement about equity. James’s father said, “James, I know that it does not make sense to you why we don’t want you to watch these movies, and your friends’ parents, who are sensible and good people, think that it is OK for their children to watch these movies. And we know that it is hard to be the only one of your friends who does see these movies. It must feel weird and bad when your friends talk about the movies and you don’t even know what they are talking about. Mom and I are sorry that it works out that way for you, but we still believe that we are doing the right thing.” James did not stop complaining, but the future gripes had a different quality. He felt connected and understood, even as he continued to wish that his parents would change their minds. He was learning the important lesson that his parents were able to stay in empathic contact with him, which meant that they could comfortably tolerate the discomfort that they were causing as a result of their loving actions. Surely, their actions were on his behalf, however misguided in his estimation. This made the situation much more tolerable to James.
Please try not to get immersed in philosophical discussions with your children of what is fair and unfair. Stick to what you think is right, and try to help your child understand his or her feelings. With such an approach, your child will feel understood and supported, and better able to tolerate and surmount the inevitable unfairness of life.