I Don’t Treat My Kids “Fair” and You Probably Shouldn’t Either

If you spend any amount of time with kids, whether summer break at home, teaching in a classroom, or volunteering at church, you are going to hear the words, “No fair!” before long.

If you are like me, the constant negotiations of daily squabbles can be maddening.

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“No fair! Why does she get more computer time than me?”

“How come he gets to sit on the couch while I have to do chores all morning! That’s not fair! I always have to clean stuff.”

“I never would have gotten away with that when I was his age. You are so much easier on them than you were on me.”

Sometimes these are obviously ridiculous ploys to get out of chores or get a brother or sister in trouble. If you are like me, maybe you’ve started your attempts at handling the fairness issue with the most obvious, the tried and true, “Life isn’t fair. Too bad.” This works about half the time, along with plenty of complaining, eye rolling, sighing, and stomping.

Other times, however, you may look at the situation and think, “Oh shoot, maybe I have let his sister be on the computer too long.” You doubt yourself. Then you may get the other sibling get off the computer in an attempt to equalize the situation. Complaining child – 1. Mom – 0.

Or, you might engage with the whining child and begin to explain why you made the decision you made to allow the sibling a privilege. There is a time and place for explanations, but right after, “No fair!” is not time. Is that whining child listening to you? Heck no. Complaining child – 1. Mom -0

For years now I’ve dealt with the fairness issue in the above ways, but I’ve learned I was going about it all wrong. I had to come to terms with a couple concepts before I could change my parenting and improve the way we handle fairness at our house:

1. We Don’t Treat Our Kids Fairly.

2. Take Fairness Off the Parenting Table.

Why We Don’t Treat Our Kids Fairly

Growing up, there were 2 children in my family: my brother and me. My parents worked hard to make sure things were fair between us siblings. Equally amounts were spent on Christmas and birthday gifts. If one got to choose a treat on vacation, the other got the same thing or something similar. My parents wanted to be sure we understood we were equally loved, with no favoritism. I appreciate the effort my parents put into this. I never felt I was valued more or less than my brother.

My husband and I have gone a totally different route than my parents, however. First of all, having 5 children, we quickly realized it was impossible. There’s just no way to equal out the parenting as our kids began to enter into vastly different stages of life, from preschool to teen.

Fairness is not the same as equality. Our children have such different needs. If we treated our children equally, our teenagers would receive Minon underwear and our little ones would be learn to drive. That could get entertaining, but hazardous.

Sometimes, it’s not fair. But over time, it’s fairly fair. In the moment, life situations can be very unfair. It’s important for us as adults to help our kids pull back and see the bigger picture. This summer we’ve spent a tremendous amount of time with one of our sons who has been in crisis. Then again, I spent a great amount of time this spring with one of my other sons who was applying for scholarships. A couple summers ago, another of our children was going through difficult times and needed our full attention. It’s not always fair in the moment, but over time, it’s fairly fair.

It’s okay for parents to have different emotional connections with different kids. I’m not a therapist or mental health expert, but generally speaking I think it’s best when we are honest with ourselves and own up to things. The truth is, you are going to have a different — perhaps better — emotional connection with some of your kids than others. We are human beings with unique personalities and we click better with some people. This doesn’t have to be a problem or mean than one of your children becomes “Mommy’s boy” or “Daddy’s favorite.” Don’t pretend it isn’t there. Just be aware that you have this natural inclination (and your spouse probably does, too) and find ways to make special times and connections with each of your kids in their own individual ways.

Kids don’t really want to be treated fairly. I like the way parenting experts Dr. Scott Turkasky and Joanne Miller explain this. When kids cry, “It’s not fair!”, they don’t really want things to be doled out equally. What our kids actually want is to be treated as special. Check out their book Say Goodbye to Whining, Complaining, and Bad Attitudes…in You and Your Kids for more on this concept.

What to Do When Your Kids Say, “No Fair!”

How to Take Fairness Off the Parenting Table

This is the master parenting key take-away:

The responsibility for handling the stress of the “No fair!” situation rests on the child, not on you.

You made a decision that is right for each child as an individual based on your parenting wisdom. Okay, maybe it wasn’t perfect. So what. You aren’t expected to be perfect, but you do a good job. Done. You are the parent and you have the authority.

If the child has a problem with it, then he needs to learn to manage his stress and calm down. That’s the issue.

So, the next time your kids are engaged in an activity and one cries, “No Fair!”, this is what to do:

  1. Acknowledge the feelings.
  2. Ask her what she’s going to do about it.

1. Acknowledge the feelings.

This is a time to use some of those reflective listening skills we’ve all been taught in business classes, church activites, and school programs. “So I hear you saying…” or “I know it’s really hard that…”. Give name to feelings for little ones or older kids who need help in this area, such as, “I see your fists are clenched. I bet you are feeling really angry and frustrated right now.”

2. Ask her what she’s going to do about it.

Turn the responsibility back to the child. Ask, “What are you going to do about it?”

All the children in our home have been taught coping strategies for handling tough emotions. They have chosen their own personal calm-down techniques like deep breathing, playing with a small set of Legos, drawing, jumping jacks, or listening to music. This is a time when they are directed to use one of those. If they are too upset to choose, I give them a set period of time (until I count to 5) and then I choose for them.

This will take some practice, but the key is do NOT fall back into explanations, lectures, or making it more equal.

You are not responsible for fixing this situation for your child.

When handled this way, you are teaching him important coping skills for the future. After all, we all know in adult life sometimes life’s not fair, right? By practicing now, someday he will be ready to face it when the time comes.

Is “No Fair!” an ongoing issue at your house? How do you handle it?


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Sara Borgstede
Sara Borgstede is a 100 lb weight loss success story, real wife, and super real mom. She is a triathlete, motivational speaker, and writer. A mom to 5 kids through birth and special needs adoption, Sara and her husband Mike were foster parents to 35 children. She blogs at www.saraborgstede.com and runs an online faith and fitness program at www.faithfulfinishlines.com. She lives in Aurora, CO with her husband, children, and three cats who eat potato chips.