89: That's Not Fair

  1. That's Not Fair By Mercer Mayer
  2. Fair

How many times have you heard a child say, “That’s not fair!” and when you try to explain, the inevitable back and forth ensues, and they are nowhere closer to understanding the situation. Given the increasing anxiety and restlessness stemming from the pandemic lockdown, you may be hearing this exclamation more often than usual. Sometimes this will simply be a child’s go to phrase when they are upset or are losing their patience. In that case, it’s worth digging a bit to uncover their true feelings. Generally, however, as children get to around 4 years old, they are beginning to understand the concept of fairness, but will need conversations and guidance on what it means.

Understanding fairness fosters empathy

Helping children understand fairness is an important part of growing up and practicing empathy. When we understand what others need and perhaps what we don’t, we recognize our differences and think a little beyond ourselves. We get to step into someone else’s shoes for a moment and consider their life.

May 18, 2020 How many times have you heard a child say, “That’s not fair!” and when you try to explain, the inevitable back and forth ensues, and they are nowhere closer to understanding the situation. Given the increasing anxiety and restlessness stemming from the pandemic lockdown, you may be hearing this exclamation more often than usual. Children as young as 3 years old will step in to right the wrong if they see someone being mistreated, a study finds. But they aren't as keen as 5-year-olds to dole out punishment. “What he is asking you to do is not equitable! That’s not fair in a partnership that is supposed to be equal,” a person commented. “The kitchen being ‘your equivalent’ is very sexist,” another wrote. “Your logic is sound. He gets more space, he pays more,” someone added.

Each year, the students in my classroom have a lesson on fairness (or equity) and equality - they just don’t know it until later. I launch this lesson by asking for volunteers. I will place something high up on the board or a shelf and call on two students to reach for it. It could be a special object or simply a marker. I will specifically call on a taller and smaller volunteer. I’m always careful to make sure that these children are comfortable in the spotlight and you’ll see why. When the taller student reaches for the object, they’ll get it. Hurray! But when the smaller student makes the attempt, the object will be just out of their reach. Then I ask the class for ideas - How can we help them?

“Give them a chair!”

“I can help them because I’m taller!”

“______ can’t be put up that high because the shorter kids can’t get them.”


So this nicely leads into a discussion of fair vs. equal. The two volunteers cannot have equal treatment, because that truly isn’t fair or even necessary. The taller child already has a leg up! *Ba dum pum* It’s evident to the class that they don’t need a stool or someone to help them reach. The other child, however, requires some accommodation to have an equalopportunity at success.

Equality has to do with sameness, just like in math. An equal sign tells us that both sides of the equation are exactly the same (3 + 2 = 5). Fair is different. Fair means everyone gets what they need, based on visible gaps in opportunity. And sometimes people will have different needs because we are unique individuals.

For example:

That's Not Fair By Mercer Mayer

  • Some children wear glasses and some don’t. That’s not equal, but it’s fair because not everyone needs glasses to see and learn best.


  • Some children may receive a different lunch in school because they have food allergies. Dotnet quit unexpectedly visual studio for mac version. That’s not equal, but it’s fair. It’s what that child needs to be healthy and safe.

Fairness at school and at home

Understanding the concept of fairness is critical in a young person’s life, but is especially important in school where they are amongst peers that they can compare themselves to. In the classroom, some children will receive accommodations to help them meet their academic or behavioral goals. Some children will inevitably receive more adult attention through special services. They may even need an individual behavior plan with built in incentives that seem special or “not fair”. As children become more exposed to the concept of fairness or in other words equity, they will grow to be more considerate of others’ needs and more aware of their own.

At home, this is also applicable to sibling relationships. A younger sibling or a baby will need more attention because they are less independent and need more adult care. This is an opportunity to remind the older child that although it feels unfair, you are trying to give everyone what they need to be well. You can remind the older child about some of the opportunities they receive, because of their own individual needs and capabilities, such as picking out their own costume for Halloween.


A child who recognizes fairness can also be more empathetic with parents, who are often trying to do their best. They may exclaim, “That’s not fair!” when you’ve forgotten that they wanted the cookies with chocolate chips and not sprinkles, but maybe they’ll be a little more understanding when you explain that you made a mistake when rushing to get to work. Why? So that you can provide for the family and buy the things that everyone needs to live well.

They may be disappointed, but that is part of life. Children will not always get what they want whenever they want, andif they did, it would be a detriment to their development. Learning and applying the concept of fairness will stretch a child’s ability to be patient and lay the foundation for developing empathy and sensitivity towards others.

Continue you practice of fairness at home with this resource:


Posted on 24 Jan in Coaching Program, Elementary, Heart Work, preschool, Solving Parenting Problems, teens0 Comments

Competition between siblings is often demonstrated by the statement, “That’s not fair” or “What about him?” Competition comes from comparison and often creates distance in relationships between brothers and sisters as they try to put each other down in order to be first or best.

Comparison between siblings often stems from a faulty belief that fair means equal. So, if my little brother gets a privilege then I should get one too.” Or, “When I was younger you were much harder on me than you are with my little sister.” Kids need to learn an important fact about life and parents usually have opportunities to teach it. Fair doesn’t mean equal. In fact, equality often becomes the enemy of fairness.

The Fairness Confusion


Fairness treats all kids according to their needs, which usually aren’t equal. Each child needs to feel loved and cared for. Every child needs to work on particular issues. Focus on your children as individuals and reward them according to their needs.

Sometimes parents contribute to the competition and comparison in their children by trying to treat their children equally. If William gets new shoes, we buy shoes for his sister too. If she gets new markers then we buy some for William as well. Children quickly get this idea and use the inequalities of life to try to get what they want.

It doesn’t take long to realize that you can’t reasonably treat your children the same. You must treat them differently because they have unique needs, personalities, and strengths. A younger child may stay up later than an older brother because she’s still taking naps and doesn’t need to go to bed as early as he does. That’s not unfair. It’s treating children according to their needs.

When children compare themselves to each other they say they want equality, but that’s not really true. What each child really wants is to feel special. When you treat them uniquely, and focus on each child individually, you’ll be surprised how much the comparison and competition are reduced in your family.

Retraining to Avoid the Unfairness Pit

In fact, if you have trouble with comparison and competition with your children you might want to emphasize what makes each child special, and make a point of treating them differently. Intentionally give them different privileges, assignments, and responsibilities and spending time one on one with them – see the power of time. Avoid grouping the children by saying things like, “Kids, it’s time to eat” or “Boys, let’s get in the car.” Instead, use each person’s name and give separate instructions. “Katy, please wash your hands and come to dinner.” “Jared, please help me finish setting the table.”

Teach your children that you don’t even try to treat them the same. If a brother sees his sister receiving a reward, and he wants one too, then you might say, “Your sister is working on something in her life and the reward is for her progress and effort. If you want to work on a character quality in your life, let me know and I’ll think of a reward for you too.”

After all, God doesn’t treat us all the same. That truth is taught in the story of the talents. One man received five, another two, and another one. There’s no room for comparison. That’s God’s choice and he knows us better than we know ourselves. So, he gives us exactly what we need. The same is true with spiritual gifts. He gives each person a different one. He loves us and because of that he treats us uniquely.

John 21:15-23 contains a fascinating story about the disciples that has application to sibling conflict. see Sibling Conflict: Your child’s first class in relationship school and you are the teacher. Jesus is telling Peter how Peter is going to die. Peter turns and looks at another disciple and says, “What about him?” Jesus answers, “What is that to you? You follow me.” In essence Jesus was saying, “I treat each person uniquely. You worry about yourself.” What a great lesson to apply to our families. Treat children uniquely and special instead of trying to treat them all equally or the same.

But Everyone’s Doing it

Another version of this same thinking error happens when a child makes the statement, “Everyone’s doing it,” to manipulate you to give in to a request. This is actually saying, “If all my friends are able to do something, it would be unfair for me not to be able to do it.” Kids need to learn that other families live differently than your family does. Here are some thoughts you can share with your child in these moments.

First, sometimes kids believe that appropriate behavior is determined by the culture. Rather, the rules you set up are based upon the values you hold. Different families have different values so as parents we need to decide what values and convictions we are going to use to determine the rules and expectations for our own families.

Honor changes the way children operate. This book shows you how to teach it.

Secondly, not everyone else is doing it. There are many families that set guidelines similar to or even stricter than yours. Children have a tendency to find more permissive families to compare themselves to so they can ask for more.

Thirdly, recognize that this question is a manipulative technique. It makes us feel like we’re depriving our kids of something. Parenting is hard work and too many parents are unwilling to take a stand for what’s right and for values that are wholesome and healthy.

Don’t let your children manipulate you with, “That’s not fair.” Instead, use the opportunity to teach them that you are making decisions for each person individually based on what you believe to be best.

This idea is taken from page 124 of Say Goodbye to Whining, Complaining, and Bad Attitudes, in You and Your Kids. In fact the whole book is full of great material for parents.