But that’s not fair!
“But that’s not fair!”
It is a favourite phrase of children everywhere. But how should a parent respond? By righting the injustice? Or by explaining that life isn’t always fair?
Well, firstly it is important to understand why your child is saying “but that’s not fair!” As in the function of the behaviour. The phrase is so favoured by children because it works. It is more successful in getting adult attention than simply saying “I don’t like this!” After all, most of us want to be fair. But when they yell out “that’s not fair!” do children always mean that there actually is a lack of fairness?
Fairness means to treat people equally without discrimination or favouritism. So, is that what your child is saying? Do they, from their perspective, feel they have been treated unfairly as in discriminated against or been the victim of the favouritism of another? If the situation doesn’t actually fit that, if they are simply using the expression to get your attention towards addressing a situation they don’t like then there is no unfairness to be addressed and it isn’t about learning that “life is often unfair” either. Rather, focus on helping your child to understand what fairness means and then treat inaccurate cries of “but that’s not fair!” as you would any other protest.
For example, if you serve up a delicious chocolate cake to one of your two children for dessert giving the second child none then your second child is quite right to raise an accusation of unfairness. But if you’ve simply said that there’s no dessert tonight because dessert is a treat reserved for specific nights only then fairness has nothing to do with it. What your child is really saying by screaming “but that’s not fair!” is “oh but I want dessert!” They’ve just learned that you start to notice when they throw the word “fair” around.
But what if you child is genuinely speaking of fairness? Well, then the first thing to consider is, is it genuinely unfair. A school child, for example, will think it unfair that their younger sibling stays at home while they go to school. From their perspective the accusation makes sense. From an adult perspective, thinking about how fairness unfolds over a lifetime, it is clear that it is perfectly fair. Each child will spend their time in school! In such situations, we can help our children to see the wider perspective as best they can.
And if the situation genuinely is unfair? Well, then you need to think about if it is a form of injustice that you can address and fix. If it is easily fixed you can go ahead and fix it. This shows your child that fairness is morally important. For example, if one of your children isn’t getting their fair share of time on the computer and you agree that their estimations of their computer time are accurate you might problem-solve a way to make computer access more fair in the family. On the other hand, at times there are instances of unfairness where your approach might be to support your child’s resilience, their ability to let some little accidental unfairness slide in life. Sometimes the most psychologically helpful approach to a minor accidental unfairness is “oh well, that’s how the cookie crumbles”.
I find it can helpful to acknowledge the unfairness and put it in the wider context of fairness in the world. There’s plenty that’s unfair in the way the world works—in fact, there remain systemic patterns of unfairness such as racism, sexism and class— there’s a distinction to be made between systemic patterns of unfairness and occasional accidental instances of unfairness or moments of bad fortune. Further, there’s a time to fight for fairness in order to push for change for everyone, and a time to cut your losses, count your blessings and let some things slide.
Apply it in your life: Notice what is really happening the next time your child says “But that’s not fair!”
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