If I had a nickel for every time I heard that phrase in my house, I’d be able to buy my kids that Xbox they’ve been begging for. OK, maybe I am exaggerating a little but I’m telling the truth when I say that the expression is a regular occurrence in our house.
I know I’m not alone in this as I have heard other parents express these same frustrations but also, I once was a child and I remember claiming that my life was “so unfair.” I had good reason to make such claims, at least to me anyway. My cousin got the Barbie car for her birthday that I had wanted…no fair! My older sister was allowed to stay up 20 minutes later than me… no fair!
Children are very egocentric, meaning they do not have the ability to see a situation from another person’s point of view. That is a skill they are still developing. When they do not receive the same treatment as another they have a difficult time understanding the reasons why—and so that popular childhood phrase lives on. The expression is especially frequent among children with siblings. A friend of mine told me that her boys would place their cups of juice side by side to ensure they were poured evenly. If mom’s hand lingered over one child’s cup for a second longer allowing for an ounce more juice to fill his cup then the other child would get upset and say it was unfair. Like most things in parenthood these experiences are funny, but they are also frustrating, so what can we do to help kids understand that life is not always fair?
Well I can tell you what my grandpa would do: he would shut down my sister and my grievances with a simple “life’s not fair.” While his strategy worked for the moment (meaning I understood he meant that our behavior was unacceptable and that it needed to stop) it didn’t work long term (I didn’t understand what his words meant and I didn’t know what to do next time).
So when my children claim their lives are so unjust I tell them what fairness means to me.
I tell them that to me fairness doesn’t mean everyone is getting the same thing. I tell them mom isn’t perfect and can’t make everything the same but I do try my best to make sure everyone feels happy, safe, and loved.
When they argue that a younger sibling gets more leniencies on the rules, I say to the older child, “The 3-year-old is still learning, you were 3-years-old once, and your rules were not as firm as they are now.”
When they cry because a sibling’s cookie is larger than their own I acknowledge their complaint. I say, “Her cookie does look a little bigger,” and then I ask, “What is different and special about your cookie?” Honestly, most of the time the cookie, snack, juice, whatever they are comparing looks exactly the same, so I just say, “It looks the same to me and it looks delicious—eat up!”
When I can tell that they are feeling strongly that they are not getting enough attention from me or a caregiver, I listen. Then I make sure to talk to the caregiver or to plan some one on one time with that child.