One of the first protests children shout when they feel upset is, “That’s NOT FAIR!” Parents can tire themselves counting an even number of Cheerios into bowls or making sure each child gets a turn pressing the elevator button, but children might still feel life is unfair until they understand the underlying root feelings and what fair and equal mean.
To help children understand the concept of fair and equal and the intense emotions often driving those beliefs, parents can use these steps to grow fairness awareness.
Explain the difference between equal and fair.
Equal is when things are exactly alike, whereas fair is when decisions are made based on individual needs. It is equal to put all the kids to bed at the same time, and fair when parents decide on bedtime based on the age and activity level of the child.
Parents can teach children these concepts by using examples and asking questions like: “It’s time to get you both some wheels! You are taller than your brother—should we get you both the same small bike with training wheels?” If your child shouts, “Yes!” then ask questions to get him thinking more about this like, “Hmm… but your brother’s feet might not touch the ground. What do you think we should do?” Get into a conversation about measuring both of the children and finding the bike that fits the best.
Use the words “fair” and “equal” often.
Draw your child’s attention to these terms by using them in daily language. Doing so will help grow the positive core belief that you are attuned to your child and meeting his/ her needs.
Identify when you are being mindful that your children like to be treated fairly, but being equal isn’t the best choice (and vise versa). For example, you could mention when you need to buy something for one child, like a new pair of shoes to replace ones that are too small, that you realize this might seem unfair to others. Even though you want siblings to feel they are being treated fairly, it isn’t helpful for the whole family to spend money when that isn’t necessary.
Identify the feeling.
Even with our best efforts, a child might still cry, “That’s not fair!” When this happens, instead of saying That’s right—life’s not fair. Get use to it! steer your child to using a feeling word. For example, “I hear you are upset. Is it anger that I hear? Or sadness?” If you have a suspicion that it is a certain feeling, try using a personal anecdote to focus attention on the feeling: “I feel that things are unfair, too, sometimes. Last time I felt that way, I realized I was sad that no one was around to help me. Are you feeling sad?”
Here are some other scripts to try:
“What is a good word to trade with ‘unfair?’ Angry? Scared? Frustrated?” (I use this one with my kids.)
“When I think ‘unfair,’ I usually feel sad. Do you feel the same?” (Focusing on the difference between a negative core belief—unfair, and feeling—sad.)
“Yes, unfair. I hear you. Does that mean you are feeling _____?”
The unfair sense is actually being driven from negative core beliefs: it’s a thought, not a feeling. When we get stuck on how unfair things are, we can’t actually process our feelings or do a good job of problem solving.
This is why it is important to pay close attention to how we feel when the life’s not fair message shouts in our minds. Identifying that feeling will help it to move along and give us the ability to shift into the rational part of the brain that can start thinking about potential solutions for our situation.
The last step to helping a child feel life is less about being unfair and more about realizing a strong feeling is being felt is to consider the available options. After a child has had an opportunity to challenge the negative core belief and connect with the feeling, (s)he is in a good space to consider options.
To reduce power struggles, rather than telling your child what to do, help your child to think of what could be done to make the situation better.
For example, try this: “Okay, so you feel embarrassed when your teacher asks you to speak in front of the class because you are scared. Is it better to ask your teacher to skip you (hmm… how will the other students feel?) or is it better to learn how to public speak so you won’t feel scared?”
See if your child can come up with two or three options (that you know (s)he can do) to choose from. Children are more likely to follow through on that decision if they have made it themselves.
Growing fairness awareness is similar to growing frustration tolerance. Here is a poster I created to remember the four steps for both of those:
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