THE BLOG
03/20/2014 03:48 pm ET | Updated May 20, 2014

The Problem With 'It's Not Fair!'

Lisa Stokes via Getty Images

"It's not fair!" Can't you just hear the whiney tone that delivers that exclamation? I've yet to meet a parent whose child hasn't at some point or other protested, "That's not faaaiiiiiirrrr?" (Note the drawn out faaaiiiiiirrrr, added for extra impact on you, the parent.)

As common and grating as the phrase is, parents never figure out why it doesn't go away. Their response is to use logic. Upon hearing the cry, Mom uses logic, explaining why something is fair. "Oh yes, it is fair because you got to go first last time, and now it's Billy's turn." It doesn't compute, and the child retorts, "But it isn't fair!"

Next, the parent lets her child know the sad reality that life isn't fair. The problem with this response is that the child is unhappy, and can't get beyond that feeling. And telling a child that life isn't fair has zero meaning for that 6-year-old, who doesn't have much life experience under his belt. Sometimes a parent says, "The fair is in Pomona" (or wherever your county fair is). The young child has no idea what you are talking about, and sarcasm doesn't work with children.

The interesting thing is that it is the parent who sows the seeds for the child's expectation for fairness. In families with more than one child, parents bend over backwards to make sure that the children get the same. The children come to understand that fair means equal. And that's just not the truth. Dad takes Amanda to buy new shoes, and he gets them for little Samantha too. "Might as well," he thinks. The mistake is cultivating the idea that whatever one gets or gets to do, the other will as well. Dad wants to avoid the inevitable "That's not fair!" from the one who doesn't get, so he preemptively buys shoes for both.

Fair does not mean equal. Fair means doing what each child needs at the time. (It also means playing by the rules. But that is for another time.) The response to Samantha should be, "When your feet get too big for your shoes, you will get new shoes." And then you must tolerate Samantha's protest. Understanding the meaning of fair usually necessitates the child's ability to delay gratification. We know that, in the end, most children will have gotten just what they needed, but it may take a while for that to happen. The ability to wait, tolerate disappointment and delay gratification builds over time and only with practice.

Digging underneath the quest for fairness uncovers the child's real feeling: "I don't like this." It's not fair, simply stated, is a form of protest. If you address the child's feeling directly, and avoid the "fair" reference -- "You really don't like it when Billy goes first" -- the child will feel safe to express his real feelings.

Here are a few tips for helping you deal with "It's not fair":

  1. Eliminate "that's not fair" from your own daily usage. Adults say this more than they realize.
  2. Stop trying to treat your kids equally. If one child needs new shoes, buy shoes only for him. Trying to be equal only fuels the child's belief that life is supposed to be "fair."
  3. Tolerate the protest. Getting agitated can show the child that she's got reason to be upset. Instead, say, "I know you are really upset. You really wanted to get some shoes too."
  4. Practice delaying gratification. Don't be so quick to give your child what he wants and to meet his needs immediately. Learning to wait will serve him well as he grows up.
  5. Allow your child to be disappointed. Learning to tolerate disappointment is one of the most important childhood lessons and is crucial to independent adulthood.