"That’s not fair!"

You say no, your kid says, “No fair!” Who’s right?

If you have more than one child, you know: One extra potato chip can tip the scales of justice and release a torrent of “no fairs.”

Ouch. It hurts when your child says, “No fair!” That’s because we like to think we are fair, explains Daniel Lagacé-Séguin, an associate professor of psychology at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax. “There are criminals who don’t follow the rules, but most of us stop at stop signs and pay our taxes. When we hear that we’re not fair, it goes to the heart of our understanding of how the world works.”

Here’s a look at the “injustices” in kids’ lives — and how to help make things (almost) right.

No fair! I want it

When my youngest was little, she thought it wasn’t right she couldn’t play with her brother’s little (and for her, lethal) toys, couldn’t ride a bike like her big sister, and wasn’t allowed to go down the street alone. Everything was unfair! (Eventually we realized that she thought that she and her sibs were all the same age — part of a litter — and that she was perfectly entitled to all the same privileges as the others.)

Young children don’t understand fairness the same way adults do. “In early childhood, they can’t see things logically or from another person’s point of view,” says Lagacé-Séguin. “It’s all about ‘me’ — if the child is not getting what he wants, it’s not fair.”

Your best bet is to respond with empathy, says family educator Cathie Pelly of Calgary. “It’s really important that we acknowledge their feelings: ‘You’re right, this doesn’t feel fair.”‘ Also keep in mind how strong a young child’s imagination is. Pelly suggests, “Up to about age four or five, fantasy and reality are very close, so we can give them what they want — in fantasy.” A parent might say: “Let’s pretend we are going to the zoo. Wouldn’t that be fun?”
No fair! She got more than me

If you have more than one child, you’ve heard this one (possibly on a loop). Whether a pony or a potato chip, if one child thinks another got something she didn’t, it’s not fair.

School-aged kids zero in on fairness (or the lack of it) in minutiae. Lagacé-Séguin says, “Kids aged six to nine are very focused on rules. This has to do with the way that they see their moral world: ‘These are the rules and we have to follow the rules.’” This helps them organize and understand their environment, but it also provides lots of “no fair” fodder. Pelly suggests reassuring your child that you understand how he feels. Remind him things even out in time and help him understand his sib’s point of view: “Right now, David needs a new mitt; yours is still OK.”

No fair! You do it — why can’t I?

We all do this: enforce a rule for kids that we bend for ourselves. In the Lagacé-Séguin household, there’s a “no eating in the living room” rule: that is, no kids eating in the living room. Dad does it.

Lagacé-Séguin says, “We have to explain the reason behind it. The likelihood of adults spilling something on the furniture is very small. The likelihood of kids spilling is very good. For me to just leave it as ‘Because I’m the boss’ would be wrong.” Another rule grown-ups famously bend is telling the truth. What parent hasn’t been caught in a little white lie: Maybe you smile, gulp and tell your partner his version of mac and cheese is, um, delicious. This kind of lie is often to spare someone’s feelings — but we need to address it. Lagacé-Séguin says, “Explain the reason behind it. If you just dismiss it, your child will think it’s OK to lie.”

Starting in the middle years (seven, eight, nine), a child begins to understand the difference between what she says to herself and what she says to others, explains Lagacé-Séguin. For example, privately she can say, “Wow, ugly sweater!” but out loud she says, “Thank you for the gift, Grandma.” By early adolescence, kids are usually good at balancing what they think and what they say. Lagacé-Séguin says they understand that “keeping things internal — things that may harm others’ feelings — is sometimes much more appropriate.”
No fair! Why is life unfair?

Diane Ireland Kelly of Harriston, Ont., says, “My eight-year-old, Enya, is completely justified in saying things aren’t fair. It’s not fair that she has to wear hearing aids, be injected with drugs, not have vision in one eye. I tell her that she’s right — certain parts of her life are not fair. We let her express herself and it seems that the few moments of venting are enough for her.”

Pelly says, “Even with young children we sometimes have to talk about how life doesn’t always work out the way we would like it to. You acknowledge that: ‘You’re right. It isn’t fair.’”

That’s the approach Kelly takes. “I also point out the things that are more than fair — great friends, nice home, wonderful cat. This helps her move on from the negative.”

When a child has an illness or other difficulty, it impacts the whole family — concern about her well-being shifts everyone’s focus. Sometimes, siblings feel they miss out. For example, Pelly’s sister has cerebral palsy. “There were things that didn’t seem fair — she got to go swimming. She needed that, but there wasn’t money for me to go, and I loved swimming. As an adult, I can look back and still think it wasn’t fair.” In the moment, it’s important to let the child talk about how he feels and acknowledge that it’s hard to have a sibling who needs extra care (rather than accuse him of behaving selfishly).
No fair! You’re ruining my life

Danuta Puech of Edmonton, mom of Jessica, 14, is familiar with the unfairness complaint. “‘No fair’ is all I hear lately! Every time Jessica doesn’t get the answer she wants, it’s ‘That’s not fair; why do I have to do that?’ and on and on!” The fairness jab from teens almost defines the stage: They want to have new experiences, while parents want to keep them safe. Pelly explains, “A teen’s job is to test his parents’ values. That’s part of separating — not disconnecting, but looking at the family’s values and deciding which ones work for him and which ones don’t.”

Many complaints are about the teen’s social life. Lagacé-Séguin says, “It often has to do with peer status: ‘I have to go to this dance. I’m not going to have any friends if I don’t.’” Puech finds this with Jessica. “It’s always ‘My friends don’t have to do that; my friends are allowed to go there.’”

Is your decision fair?

The bottom line is your child’s well-being. Pelly says, “I ask myself: ‘Does the child understand the consequences if things go wrong? If not, I’m not just saying no — it’s a very specific concern.” Explain your worry to your child, and problem-solve together. There may be a solution that will meet everyone’s needs — allowing your teen some independence while fulfilling your need to keep her safe.

And that’s fair.

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