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“That’s So Unfair!” If Only It Were that Simple

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: How come she gets to stay out until 11 pm but I have to be home by 10? That’s so unfair!

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Of course, you can substitute any number of complaints for that one. Why does HE get to use the car? Why do you always make HER favorite dinner?

Chances are you’ve heard something like this at your house, too.

We’re all tempted to call “foul” when we believe we have been treated unfairly. As a parent, how do you strive for fairness among your children? And more importantly, what is fair?

We asked Amy Speidel, parenting coach, to share some of her thoughts about what fairness is and how to implement it as a family. Speidel offers this great perspective that helps remind us why this is a difficult task. “Children first learn about fairness through a very personal lens: ‘Is it fair to me?’” she says. And when they ask this question, they want to be treated the same way as others, be it getting the same number of cookies, the same allowance, or the same rules.

However, part of our parenting role is to help our kids understand that what is fair may not always be reasonable. For example: it is fair when parents have consistent curfew rules for their teens, but when one child has an early wake up, it is reasonable to make that curfew earlier. Likewise, if a child with an early curfew has never been late and wants to stay out later to work on their Latin project, it it is reasonable to extend the curfew. The truth is that context plays a role in our decisions and often leads teens to feel the injustice of it all.

Ultimately, we hope that our kids can move beyond themselves as they navigate the concept of fairness. As parents, our goal should be to help our kids find a balance between their needs and the needs of others. This version of fairness may require them to be able to wait for a turn or sacrifice what they want in order to accommodate others. And this is where ideas about the greater good come in to play.

These are wonderful goals, to be sure. But how do we help our teenagers understand the complicated nature of fairness? And how do we respond when our kids complain, “That’s not fair!” Speidel offers helpful guidelines.

Fostering Fairness: 5 Strategies 

1. Dispel faulty thinking.

Fairness does not mean everyone always gets the same thing; this is the fastest road to unrealistic expectations. If one child grows out of his shoes, should everyone in the family get a new pair? Fair is not the same as equal.

2. State what fairness looks like for your family.

“In this family we strive to be fair by….” Let your children know how you define fairness, and help them build confidence in your ability to maintain it. Openly communicate your values and how they relate to fairness.

3. Clarify that needs are not the same as wants.

Fairness generally focuses more on needs than wants. It is fair to pay for your children’s equipment for a sports team and yet expect them to earn money to purchase any extras they may want.

4. Be willing to listen.

When children feel that something is unfair, listen to their reasoning. They may have a point. Listening doesn’t mean you have to change direction; it just means you’re willing to consider another perspective.

5. Acknowledge that sometimes life is unfair.

Offer empathy rather than judgment when a child is frustrated by life’s injustices. It’s hard when the world doesn’t operate the way they think it should. Empathy gives them the boost they need to accept the disappointment and to decide whether they want to do something to correct what they’ve found to be unjust.

Susan Borison, mother of five, is the founder and editor of Your Teen Media. Because parenting teenagers is humbling and shouldn’t be tackled alone.

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