How often do your children say, "It's not fair?" Do they really mean, "It's not equal"? That's probably true. In our efforts to make things fair we don't make them equal.

Fairness in Parenting – Fair Is Not Equal

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“It’s not fair!” is the child’s rallying cry, often accompanied with a stomped foot or protruded lower lip for emphasis.

How often do your children say, "It's not fair?" Do they really mean, "It's not equal"? That's probably true. In our efforts to make things fair we don't make them equal.

My response? “No, it’s not equal. ‘Fair’ and ‘equal’ are not always the same thing.” Or, far more often, my daughters hear me say, “Fair is not equal.

I aim for fairness in my parenting. There’s plenty of unfairness in the world. My kids should be able to rely on me to be fair… and they do. As far as I can recall, I’ve always been able to respond to accusations of,  “That’s not fair!” with an explanation of how I determined the perceived inequity to be fairness.

For example, when M tells me she hasn’t had her share of snuggles, I will remind her that she received an hour of my undivided conversational attention while J read by my side. When J tells me that M gets away with more instances of rudeness, I point out that M finds it harder to control her impulses, so my expectations of J are higher. J also gets more benefit of the doubt in arguments between the sisters because of her track record of telling me difficult truths. When J asks why I always ask whether she’s remembered to write her name on her homework, I tell her it’s because she forgets more often than not. When I ask M to double check whether she’s answered every question on her homework before I even look at it, it’s because I know that’s a weakness.

I suspect it’s a lot easier to be fair to same-gender twins than to children of different ages. I can imagine that a younger child might perceive an earlier bedtime as unfair, not realizing that the older sibling had to slog through early bedtimes at the same age. However, demonstration of parental efforts toward fairness over time should earn our children’s trust.

The world is not fair, I tell my girls. It’s not fair that their parents are divorced while other kids have parents who will stay married forever. It’s not fair that they have three mommies to love them when others get only one. It’s not fair that learning comes so easily to both M and J, while their friends struggle with reading. It’s not fair that I can fit comfortably in an airplane seat while other people can reach the top shelves in my kitchen without needing a stool. A completely fair world would be rather boring.

I shared with my daughters my recollection of part of Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “Harrison Bergeron“. In Vonnegut’s dystopia of 2081, in an attempt to make everyone equal, strong people are made to wear weights and smart people have their thoughts interrupted by distracting sounds to bring everyone’s abilities down to the same level.

Fair isn’t equal. And life isn’t fair. But we parents can be.

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Sadia (rhymes with Nadia) has been coordinating How Do You Do It? since late 2012. She is the divorced mother of 10-year-old monozygotic twins, M and J. They live in the Austin, TX suburbs, where Sadia works full time in information technology. She contributes to a number of parenting websites and magazines and also runs The Mommy Blogging Guide, where she answers mommy bloggers' technical questions.

3 thoughts on “Fairness in Parenting – Fair Is Not Equal”

  1. Wise words from a wise lady. I’m going to use them when my son yells ‘It’s not fair’ to me. Happens daily and I say ‘Well life isn’t fair’ which is perhaps too much for a 5 yo to grasp. I shall adapt my words now and see what happens.Great post!

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