One afternoon last week, my older children were each busy having fun with friends as my 5-year-old, Matt, was stuck home playing alone with his Legos. As the older children came home, they each recounted the fun things they did with their friends. My 13-year-old daughter said that she went to the mall and had ice cream to which Matt responded, "It's not fair, I also want ice cream." Then my 11-year-old recounted, "I hung out at my friend's house and we went swimming in her backyard pool." Matt, sounding even more disappointed, said in response, "It's not fair, I also want to go swimming." Then my 8-year-old told us about his afternoon playing in the park and having popsicles. Matt did not disappoint and instinctively responded with, "It's not fair, I also want a popsicle."
As any parent knows, "it's not fair" seems to be the complaint of choice when children feel the slightest sense of injustice in their life, particularly when they think that their sibling received more than they did. This reaction is a function of children's natural sibling jealousy combined with their limited and innocent understanding of the world. As parents, we often feed this childhood belief by insisting that all children receive the exact amount of whatever resource we are providing. If you take out nuclear measuring devices when you are cutting pieces of cake for your children to guarantee that they each get an identical-sized piece of cake, you are guilty of feeding this type of belief.
I decided to use Matt's complaints as a teachable moment. After all, life is not always fair and the sooner he learns this reality, the easier it will be for him to deal with disappointments in the future. So, I proceeded to use a standard Cognitive Therapy technique I often use with my clients called cognitive restructuring to help my son challenge his belief that life has to be fair. Although, as a developmental psychologist, I was fully aware of the fact that his thinking was based on his age and hence would be hard to change at this point in his life, I decided to proceed anyway and see where it goes. After all, I was not seeking external funding for this experiment and hence had the liberty to do as I pleased without oversight. Although my wife often vetoes some of my more creative experiments I try conducting on our children, she was upstairs at the time.
I turned to Matt and said to him, "Your brother and sisters got all these special things and you did not," to which he nodded and said "And it's not fair!" I then said, "Yes, it's not fair, but it's OK that it's not fair. Can you say that? Say: it's OK that it's not fair." He surprisingly repeated after me, "It's OK that it's not fair," but quickly recuperated and said, "But it's not fair." I again said, "Yes, it's not fair, but it's OK that it's not fair. Can you say that? Say: it's OK that it's not fair." He once again repeated after me, "It's OK that it's not fair." The technique seemed to have worked for the moment and I left it at that.
A few hours later, my oldest daughter was pouring juice for everyone at the dinner table. She apparently poured less for my 8-year-old son than she did for my 11-year-old daughter, to which my 8-year-old son complained, "It's not fair." From the corner of the table, Matt piped up and declared, "But it's OK if it's not fair."
I hope it sticks.
Dr. Avidan Milevsky is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania and a psychotherapist at Wellspring Counseling in Towson, MD. You can ask him questions LIVE on Twitter by tweeting him @PsycRefelctions or using the hashtag #siblingproblems on Thursdays at 5pm EST.