It’s not Fair!
In every house, classroom and playground across the land, children can be heard exclaiming that some aspect of their life is not fair. Children have an inbuilt fairness chip and if they feel that it has been violated, they become upset, resentful and angry. Children scan the world as if there were a balance scale in their mind that could measure what they get, how they are treated and what they are allowed to do as compared to the other children around them. I would go so far as to say that fairness is one of the top five traits that children want to see in the adults around them.
Of course not all children are the same, so how do we manage the issue of fairness in our homes? Stand back and take a moment to notice just how different the children in your family or in your child’s social group are. There was a time in my life when I assumed that all children borne of me would be similar to each other. The evidence against this conjecture was colossal. I had taught siblings who were like chalk and cheese and I could see that my friends were very different from their brothers and sisters. However, it was only once my second baby was born that I truly began to understand. When my first baby was born, she largely kept her eyes closed for six weeks. She showed no curiosity to check out her parents or the world around her at all! In the labour ward after the birth of baby two, her eyes were open from the very first moment and we constantly remarked upon the difference. That was the first of a thousand individual differences we were to see. So the spectres of fairness and equality raise their heads in our homes. If each of our children is so different how can we treat them equally and fairly?
This is the key point: being fair does not necessarily mean treating each child equally. The definition of equality means equal rights for people regardless of individual differences or differentiating factors. If we take just age as a factor, we can see the sense in deciding that just because we let one child do something doesn’t mean that we will automatically let another. Older children are gradually given greater independence and autonomy. By degrees they are allowed to engage in riskier behaviours: they are allowed to hold sharp implements like cutlery and scissors; they are given small foods that would have been a choking hazard when they were a baby; they will be allowed to cross the road alone. We adjust the world around them to fit their age, stage, skills and talents, and we make judgements based on how responsible or trustworthy we deem them to be.
The fairness aspect comes in because we judge each child on their own merits and adjust our rules and guidelines accordingly. If one child is to be allowed a privilege or right, we need to explain to the children who aren’t why this is so. For example if one child complains that a friend doesn’t have to use a car seat anymore, we would explain that the rule is based upon age and height. If one child is old enough to use a knife to cut a cake in half to share with a sibling, let the younger sibling choose the half they want. This is a guaranteed way to ensure absolute equality in the size of cake portions received! If your older child lords their privilege over their younger brother or sister, remind them that you expect them to treat each other well, and that a sneering, patronising or contemptuous manner could well mean that they themselves are not worthy of the privilege either.
Judge each situation based on each child. Though one child isn’t allowed to take their stabilisers off their bike until they’re six, if the next child is clearly a competent, safe and steady cyclist, let their stabilisers come off at age five. Judge each child on their own merits, skills and abilities. You may think that one child is just like you and or just like your partner and then treat them as if they were. Just check the accuracy of any such assumptions. Beware of your own biases about how girls and boys ‘should’ be and note if they are actually true for your child.
Some rules in your home are unchanging equal the same for all. For the rules and privileges that are applied more flexibly, ensure that you are basing your decisions on the child you see before you. And communicate, communicate, communicate. To your child, these differences look like discrepancies and favouritism until you can clearly explain the reasons. You may even be able to stop the eternal cry of “But it’s not fair!” but I wouldn’t hold your breath!