When Kids Say, “That’s Not Fair!”

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.

Joanne Miller, RN, BSN

Comparison between siblings leads to conflict when it’s fed by a faulty belief that fair means equal. “If my 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 many 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 in unique ways. Every child has individual strengths and weaknesses. Treating children equally wouldn’t be fair because their needs are different. Focus on your children as individuals and care for 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 different 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

If you have trouble with comparison and competition in your family 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 spend time one-on-one with them.  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, come 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 project for you too.”

After all, God doesn’t treat us all the same. This 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, “Everybody’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. This can be dangerous thinking and lead to all kinds of problems. More appropriately, 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 the book Say Goodbye to Whining, Complaining, and Bad Attitudes, in You and Your Kids by Dr Scott Turansky and Joanne Miller, RN, BSN. In fact the whole book is full of great material for parents. To find the audio book, click here.

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