“It’s not fair! His piece of cake is bigger than mine!”
“It’s not fair! He has the ball but I want to play with it!”
“It’s not fair! He got to go to a birthday party and I didn’t!”
For a while there, it seemed that “It’s not fair” had become the soundtrack to my life. The almost obsessive way my boys measured how the details of their lives stacked up when compared with one another was driving me crazy. I knew it was a normal stage of cognitive development but all that complaining sounded, frankly, entitled & ungrateful and dealing with it was exhausting me.
From my observations, we parents usually have one of two responses to our children’s whines that “it’s not fair”-
1) We scramble to make things as equal as possible in order to quell the protests.
2) We snap back, “Well, life’s not fair – get used to it!” in a fed up, sarcastic tone of voice.
I have done both.
But, recently, exhausted by a million “it’s not fair”s, I did something altogether more productive. I banned those three little words from our family conversations.
LIFE ISN’T FAIR & THAT’S OK
As adults, we know that life isn’t fair in the usual sense of the word – we don’t all get exactly the same amount of each thing. Every person can compare their lives in both directions – My family doesn’t get about in a stylish car and chic clothes like some families I see. But, we live in a spacious, weathertight home while others rely on a makeshift cardboard shack or a communal tent at a refugee camp for their shelter. If our children are raised to believe that they should get the same as everybody else, they will constantly be trying to make sense of a reality that doesn’t fit their belief, swinging wildly between feelings of victimhood and privilege.
Another understanding of fair is getting what we deserve. This, too, does not hold true. We all know stories of bad things happening to good people. We can think of times in our own lives when we worked really hard or did all the “right” things and didn’t enjoy the pay-off we wanted. Often effort and good values do pay-off (and they’re still worth doing) – but they’re not a guarantee.
But life is fair in that we all get opportunities to experience heartache, worry, peace and joy, if in different forms. My understanding is that our experiences in life are in some way individualised to meet the purposes of our souls (not our egos). That’s not to say that, in the midst of it all, we feel like we’re getting a good deal but I guess that’s what faith is – trusting that things are unfolding for the greatest good, even when it doesn’t appear that way. This is the understanding of “fair” that I hope my boys will have.
HOW I RESPOND WHEN MY CHILDREN COMPLAIN “IT’S NOT FAIR!”
My boys know that they are always welcome to express their point of view but I’m teaching them to talk about themselves, not in comparison to others. “What your brother has/does isn’t relevant, just tell me about yourself”, I’ll say. And this is something that I do in many different parenting situations – I keep their focus on what they can control. Themselves. So, instead of saying, “It’s not fair, he has the car and I wanted to play with it”, they can say, “I’d like a turn with that car” and we work through it from there.
Recently, Jake needed new shoes so I took him shopping for a pair. When we got home, Thomas asserted that it wasn’t fair, he wanted a new pair of shoes too. I explained that his shoes fit him well and are not yet worn out so he doesn’t need new shoes right now. “When you need new shoes, I will get you new shoes”, I told him. I wanted him to see that people need different things at different times and that my “fairness” lies not in giving my boys the same but in treating them the same by providing them each with what they need when they need it. Thomas was very accepting of my response.
Most importantly, I’m trying not to use the word “fair” myself (which is harder than I expected!). Fairness is not one of our family values – but kindness, for instance, is. So, if one of my boys is using a toy that the other wants, I encourage kindness and consideration from both parties – “Jake, please leave Thomas to enjoy his turn with the ball, then you can have it. And, Thomas, when you’ve finished, please give the ball to Jake so that he can have a turn”. Or I might encourage them to work things out together in a way that satisfies them both, “how can you sort this out so that you both get to have fun with the ball?” Here, I’m focussing on the small kindness of allowing the other to enjoy playing with the ball. It’s a subtle shift, easily made by not using the word “fair”.
But, if it’s a cake that has been cut into uneven slices, I just spare us the fuss and make sure they are evened up before my boys even have a chance to whine that it’s not fair. Let’s just be practical about that one!
IN SUMMARY: NO MORE KEEPING SCORE
I hope you feel somewhat relieved of the burden of trying to keep everything equal between your children. It was always an impossible task, even for the most clever and cunning of parents. When our children whine that “It’s not fair!”, we have a chance to teach them that life is not a comparison game. We have all experienced that downward spiral comparison with others creates for our own sense of wellbeing – let’s not pass that onto our kids.
One benefit of banning the phrase “It’s not fair” is that my boys seem to find it affirming to be treated as individuals, to know that I’m tuning into them and their unique needs, rather than treating situations as an administrative exercise – keeping tally, taking stock, balancing the books. Their complaints that “It’s not fair!” are s-l-o-w-l-y reducing as we all learn to keep our eyes on ourselves, not others.
Much love to you and your little souls,
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