It’s Not Fair! Ever heard those words from your child? Remember saying them yourself? With two children in the home, I have the opportunity to hear that whiny jingle quite frequently. If you have missed this opportunity, park yourself outside an ice cream shop and count how many times you hear that phrase as children pass by.
Why is this the go to phrase? What are they really saying? And, how do I respond with something other than the dreaded, “Life isn’t fair, son?"
Why Do They Say It?
Imagine if your boss held the power to decide what you ate, when you ate, who you sat next to while you ate, and whether or not you got a treat at the end. Not only that, but the person at the cubicle next to you gets to have a longer lunch break because they are older than you. What might you say to yourself, your boss, or anyone else you can find? All together now, “It’s Not Fair.”
In previous posts, including this one on clothing conflicts, I discuss how children sometimes feel powerless. So much is decided for them that at times, they just have had enough. It’s not all about being “controlled” though. Families who have worked to find constructive uses of power for children, giving them choices and involving them in decision making, still hear those three little words.
One of the most common times we hear this phrase is when our children think someone else is getting something that they are not. Someone else gets to stay up later, someone else doesn’t have to eat broccoli, and someone else gets to have ice cream. Even worse is when the other person is a sibling!
I believe there are two key reasons why kids (and adults) go to this phrase:
1) We are born with a belief that this is a just world, where every person is worthy of having their needs met. Yes, we grow up and realize that, sadly, we won’t get all of our needs met all of the time, but down deep, we want to believe the world is just.
2) We compare. One of the earliest ways babies make sense of their world is through sorting. We continue doing this comparing throughout life as a check-in, asking ourselves, am I normal? Am I loved the same? Am I worthy of what that person is worthy of? Siblings seem to be the perfect specimen for comparing ourselves to.
Jane Nelson, of Positive Discipline, says it so well: “Children are great observers, but poor interpreters.” They pick up on subtle nuances that many adults miss, but they often have mistaken beliefs as to why something is happening. A sibling having a later bedtime might be interpreted as, “Mom and dad want more time with my brother than me.” If that is the child’s belief, you can imagine the number of times you will hear “It’s not fair!”
As adults, we know that fair does not mean equal. We know that judging ourselves and others usually leads to feeling worse instead of better, and creates a competitive environment instead of a cooperative one.
Here’s something else adults know: Life is, in fact, unfair. We know this from the horrible injustices that occur all around us. We shield our children from this though. We avoid the hard conversations; we don’t want them to ask why some children are born in to poverty and violence.
I think one of the reasons “It’s not fair” pushes our buttons so much as parents is that we look at our kids and think, “do you even understand how fortunate we are to have what we have?” The problem is, we have a role in this too. As we do things for our kids that they are capable of doing for themselves, as we rescue them from difficult emotions and never let them fail, they never get to see that life is full of challenges. Even more importantly, they miss the opportunity to develop resilience-the tools to handle hard emotions and the belief in one’s ability to use those skills.
What Are They Really Saying?
Let’s think about it. Picture in your mind some little thing that seemed unfair to you recently. Maybe your boss picked a coworker to take the lead on a project and you were hoping for that role. While our inner child believes, “It’s not fair,” the truth is we are experiencing a feeling. That feeling often appears to be anger or jealousy. What lies underneath the anger is something different: fear.
Somewhere in our brains, our sense of safety is threatened. We are afraid someone is loved more than us. What could possibly be worse than wondering if your parents love your sibling more than you? This plays out in all of those situations where we feel powerless and out of control. Thinking to ourselves, "Someone else is deciding my fate." Feeling the fear doesn’t mean that we rationally believe in it. Nevertheless, in that moment, the feeling is there.
We don’t like feeling afraid though. It feels well, scary! It feels overwhelming and powerless. To many of us, anger feels better. It feels powerful. Jealousy and judgment feel more powerful too, so its pretty easy to see why we go to those feelings first.
Let me guess, you are saying to yourself, “My child does not seem scared, she seems needy and helpless.” Sometimes it seems those 3 words are code for “I am not getting what I want and I don’t like it.” I think these still have a deep down fear attached. It goes back to that overdoing for our kids, and the mistaken belief that comes from doing too much for them. Our children start believing that the way to feel connected and loved is to have us providing special service for them. Imagine what happens when we finally hit our wall and say, “No.” If they believe our "Yes" is the same as "I love you," then "No" is pretty hard to swallow. Their feelings of safety are threatened; they don’t like that, and out comes those words. Is it playing in your head yet? “It’s Not Fair!”
Bottom line, “It’s Not Fair,” is actually a code for “I am feeling scared.” Do our kids know that’s what they mean? Most likely, the deeper fear is not a conscious thought for them. Even as adults, we often don’t realize that the same thing is happening in our moments of jealousy and “poor me”.
How much better could we respond if we tuned in to the actual feeling behind those words? I know my body feels completely different in response to “I’m Scared,” than it does to “It’s Not Fair.”
How Do I Respond?
So now we have a better understanding of why they say it and what the underlying feeling might be. Here are some tips for how to respond in the moment, and how to help your child work through their feelings.
Create a family culture where each family member feels connected and know their thoughts and feelings matter. You can do this through family meetings, including children in problem solving and decision making, practicing active listening skills and making sure the message of love gets through even when kids make mistakes. When children, and adults for that matter, feel a sense of belonging and significance, they feel less helpless and more of an active participant in life.
Give your child opportunities to contribute in meaningful ways. Remember that, “It’s Not Fair” comes from a place of feeling powerless and scared. Giving our children more responsibility allows them to have some constructive use of power. I am continually amazed how cooperation increases and whining decreases when we up the level of chores our kids help with. Our children get to pick a significant new chore on their birthday each year, and they really look forward to having a greater sense of ownership in their home and life.
Show Empathy. "It’s Not Fair" usually comes with a diatribe about how Johnny gets to eat five scoops of ice cream every night and your poor son only got one. Start by reflecting back the underlying feeling that your child is expressing.
Sounds like you really are enjoying that ice cream and wish you could have more.
Sounds like you are feeling angry that you didn’t get as much ice cream as you wanted.
Avoid the Urge to Lecture. Start with one empathetic statement and let it sit. So often, we just keep talking. We go on to how Johnny’s family has different rules or how you know Johnny’s parents and you know they wouldn’t give him that much ice cream.
What happens next? Well, we negated the nice empathetic statement we made by telling him why there is no reason to feel what he is feeling. The child then needs to defend their feelings and continues to whine about the lack of humanity you have shown by giving him only one scoop. Next thing you know, you are quite angry yourself and the next comment may sound like, “Life isn’t fair, and you are lucky you are getting ice cream at all!”
Sound familiar? We get ourselves in to trouble when we keep talking instead of just taking a moment to hear our kid and reflect back. We want to rationally explain why there is no need to be upset about this, how it’s just not a big deal, or if they would just stop complaining and do X, we could get over this already.
What happened the last time your partner tried that with you? Most of us can relate to times when we really just need some support and a listening ear, and our partner or close friend goes in to problem solving mode. They tell you it really isn’t that big of a deal. Maybe you are mistaken and your boss doesn’t like your coworker more. Are you sure you are not just overreacting? If you are like many of us, when that happens, we feel dismissed and unheard. This makes us dig deeper in to our perspective and defend our feelings. If instead, we are met with a listening ear and an empathetic statement, we are often able to let go of the negative feeling or at least feel supported in it.
Trust Your Child’s Ability to Handle Discomfort
Your child may continue complaining and trying to change the outcome of the situation. Your job is to stay out of negotiating in the moment, unless you are really open to changing the outcome.
You can continue to offer more empathy, share a time where you felt that something was really unfair, offer to help them explore how they can solve the problem, or ask if this is something they would like to put on the family meeting list to discuss at a calmer time.
It’s hard to see our children upset, and this is another place we can get stuck as parents. If we view our job as making our kids happy, it is easy to give in to every demand in an attempt to make their difficult feelings go away. Unfortunately, this sends our children the message that we too believe they are helpless and can’t handle the discomfort they are feeling.
The conversation might look like this:
Child: It’s not fair; Sara gets to stay up later than I do! Why does she always get to do more than me?
Parent: Sounds like you are feeling angry that you have an earlier bedtime than your sister.
Child: I should get to stay up that late too! I want to stay up until she goes to bed tonight.
Parent: I remember that my brother got to stay up later than me, and it bothered me too.
Child: (crying) So then why are you doing this to me? Please mom, please let me stay up tonight?
Parent: I know you are upset, and its time for bed. I'm looking forward to reading to you when you are in your PJs.
At this point, your child may be upset, and it can be hard to see. Trust them. Trust them that they can be mad, sad, jealous, or any other emotion and they will get through it. They will be ok, and so will you. You can still be empathetic to their feelings, without letting go of the boundaries on their behavior. Instead, we can spend our energy focusing on managing our own anxiety and frustration in the face of their emotions. Not only do they get to flex those resiliency muscles, they learn that we believe in them and that helps them believe in themselves.
Pay Attention to How You Handle Disappointment and Frustration. We are all going to have moments when the world just seems to be spinning without us and life really feels unfair. Sometimes we need a moment to wallow in it, and that’s ok.
It’s important to keep in mind though that children learn so much more from what we do than from what we say. If we regularly model responding to life’s stressors with anger, pessimism, and blame, we can expect our kids to do the same.
If instead, we acknowledge our feelings and then think of ways to reframe the situation in a positive perspective, we teach our children how to do that as well. Focusing on the positive helps us feel empowered instead of hopeless, and models for our kids resilience in action.
Have a Conversation Around Fairness. This is a worthwhile conversation for all families, whether you hear the "It’s Not Fair" whine often or not. Share with each other what your definition of fair is. Ask the children what fair means to them. Share times that you felt jealous or that life was unfair and what helped you move through those feelings.
Who decides what is fair may be an interesting discussion question, as well. Do parents decide? Do we each decide for ourselves? Does it matter if someone else says its fair when we feel differently?
Our family has had multiple conversations about the difference between “fair” and “the same.” For example, if one child goes to bed earlier than the other, its not identical, but it likely may be fair because the younger child requires more sleep than the older child. We define fair in our family as each person getting what they need, not necessarily getting the same thing. If one person needs new shoes because they outgrew theirs, it doesn’t mean the other gets a new pair then too. What we think our kids need and what they think they need, is not always the same, and that’s often the spot that feels unfair to them.
This conversation is most helpful when NOT in the midst of a major "It's Not Fair" meltdown from child or parent. Small discussions in calm moments can help your children develop their own concept of justice, which will grow and change along with their own development.
So next time you hear, “It’s Not Fair,” slow down and think about the emotion your child is having. This gives us the opportunity to step out of our own ideas of fairness and help them develop resilience in the face of difficulty.