From One Mom to Another: How to Deal When Kids Pull Out the “It’s not Fair!” Card

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Sibling rivalry — everyone with sibs know what that is. And with kids, it all boils down to what’s fair and what’s not. Fairness fights are a common occurrence at homes with multiple kids. I have three kids and while the third one is still a baby and too young to participate in the squabble [but not too young to be included as a reason for a fight], my two elementary-aged kids just don’t seem to run out of reasons to bicker off each of their fairness and equality rights. The reasons vary greatly — from something child-big like why only one gets a new pair of shoes [I always make it a point that when I buy something new, it would be for the three of them but buying three pairs of shoes in one go is difficult given a tight budget] or to something very trivial like who gets the last piece of Lego block after dividing the pieces equally between themselves and there’s one odd piece left.

Fairness in Kids’ Eyes

A child’s concept about fairness differs greatly from that of an adult, Psychology professor Smetana of New York’s University of Rochester clarifies.

Toddlers see fairness as getting what they want and if they don’t then, the world isn’t fair at all hence it deserves their full-blown tantrums. As they grow older, this concept morphs into fairness being equality among friends and other kids like getting the same thing as what other sibling or kid got. Eventually, being with kids from other families and other levels of life in school make them realize that fairness has its distinctions – that it could totally be fair for two kids to have differing things of similar values like having differently flavored cookies at the same time. They will also start to see complications in what they believe are fair – that there are some families who couldn’t afford what other families can.

One experts say that it is not until a child reaches early adolescence – about middle school level – that he/she gets a good grasp and apply more logic to his/her fairness concept. At this time, he/she may grudgingly accept that while it sucks, kids in the family have different needs and mom and dad are trying [quite desperately] to meet these needs as they see fit. It could mean that only one kid in the house gets to have new shoes and that’s because he/she needs it, not because the parents are playing favorites.

“But the process in getting to that point is long and tedious,” the child behavior expert adds.

So, how do parents [like me and you!] cope up with our kids’ somewhat distorted concept of fairness without having have to feel like we need to pull our hair out one by one or being reduced to screaming hags in the next five minutes or so listening to their arguments?

  1. Explain yourself in clear terms.

One mother – and it helps that she’s also a psychology graduate and practitioner – stresses out the need to explain yourself in clear terms to your children in line of “All of you are fair in my eyes but it doesn’t mean I have to treat you all the same to show it. Treating each of you differently means you have different needs”.

Your children may whine but your clear explanations will help shape their concept of fairness and will kindle their understanding of it. Simply put, they’ll get the gist of it.

  1. Don’t disregard their feelings.

Communication is a two-way street so, let them air their feelings and actually listen to them. Listening to your child’s reasons will not only let you understand why he/she is acting such but will also provide you with an “in” moment – a point where you can come across with your reason why you did something differently from what he/she is expecting without the both of you screaming at each other.


  1. Stress out the important part.

Seeing that we didn’t get her a cake for her seventh birthday [that time, we didn’t have the budget to get or make one], my daughter gave me an earful as it was one of the things she specifically requested. Gently, I explained to her how I badly want to give her one but our budget’s tight. I also went on to say that with or without a cake, celebrating her birthday with her being healthy and doing so as a one complete family is something to be happy about [it also helped that her other two requests were present – spaghetti and fried chicken!].

  1. End it when the talking gets you nowhere.

When your child can’t be reasoned with, call a time out. Telling him/her to suck it up may not be the best option there is but at this point, letting him/her know that “life doesn’t cater to our every whims and that though we hate that, that’s how reality works” is needed.

You might be tempted to give in just to get your child to shut it but don’t. LET YOUR NO BE NO and stand your ground. Giving in conveys the message that if he/she persists, you’ll eventually cave in and give/him/her whatever she wants.

“Teach your child the value that fairness doesn’t mean always getting what you want,” a mother of two stressed out.

At the end of every fairness battle, not everyone gets to be happy but that’s a given fact, says one New York mother who has refereed fights between her 4-year-old and 6-year-old daughters.

“There’s always something to fight for and that’s completely normal,” she adds.

Fortunately, the more your kids’ understanding about fairness matures, the lesser the fights will be. Until then, you just have to brace yourself for the ride.

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