By MARTHA BROCKENBROUGH From Mom’s Homeroom
There’s one good thing about the fairness phase many kids go through: It makes them excellent at basic math.
They know what makes exactly half a cookie. They know exactly when someone’s 10-minute turn with a toy is up. And they can precisely measure the volume of soda in a cup using only their eyeballs, detecting instantly when a sibling gets a nanodrop more.
Whose kids haven’t at one point hollered, “That’s not FAIR!” when they felt cheated out of their supposed share of something?
The standard parental reply is to say that life isn’t fair. But that isn’t a very satisfying response, is it?
It shuts down a lot of discussion you can have with your kids about life and how it works, and how we can manage all the complicated feelings that go along with things related to fairness.
Rather than resorting to the standard reply, experts say, we can use everyday experiences to coach our kids to a deeper understanding of fairness, equality and how they can feel genuine satisfaction with their lives regardless of what they receive.
When kids notice ‘fairness’
Kids first start to care about fairness when they’re in preschool, says Dr. Cheryl Rode, director of clinical operations at the San Diego Center for Children.
Two things are happening at this age: Kids are being formally introduced to rules, sharing and turn-taking, and they’re also starting to develop the understanding that other people have feelings.
“But the building blocks for fairness begin even before this,” says Rode, “with parents teaching children about kindness and understanding and naming their emotions.”
Early on, fairness is typically defined in one of two ways: with everyone getting exactly the same thing, or the child getting everything he or she wants. Kids can’t help it. At this stage, they naturally think the world revolves around them and that they’re due the same things everyone else has.
Later, when kids turn 6 or 7, there is another burst of awareness, says Will Craig, educational director of Partners With Parents, a custom tutoring and educational consulting service in New York City.
This is when kids in early elementary school develop the capacity to really notice when people are being treated differently. For example, if someone arrives two minutes late and isn’t punished, why does the kid who arrived three minutes late get in trouble? Kids this age can be very rigid when it comes to equal treatment for everyone, says Craig.
How to help them understand fairness and equality
It’s understandable that kids early on think equal and fair mean the same thing. But as we parents know, this sort of equality is unattainable in most situations. What’s more, it’s not even always desirable. And as tempting as it is at times to want to even things out for our kids, this isn’t a good idea.
Equality and fairness are different. Equality is a measure of sameness. If you have three cookies and I have three cookies, we have an equal number. When it comes to cookies, that might also be fair. But when it comes to other things, it might not be — and this is a key thing to teach kids.
“Fairness is a perception about what is deserved or agreed upon,” Rode says. “It is sometimes very unfair to make things equal.”
For example, if a child is playing a game against an older sibling, he might need an extra turn to feel successful. On the flip side, if an older child does more chores, she deserves to be paid more than a younger sibling with fewer responsibilities.
As parents, we should welcome the chance to talk about fairness and equality with our kids, Rode says, because understanding those concepts helps our kids to grow up to be compassionate citizens.
How to teach them to take a view beyond their own interests
There are many ways to give our kids a chance to manage fairness. Let’s say your child has a friend over. Instead of dividing their snack into two equal servings, give them a single bowl and let them divide it themselves, Craig suggests.
Or, as they read books or watch TV shows and movies, ask them how they would resolve the fairness issues that arise. Say, “What would you have done in that situation?”
Resist evening things out for your kids. Instead, if someone has something your children don’t, let them talk about their feelings. Encourage your kids to focus on the things they do have that make them happy, reminding them how fortunate they really are.
The better kids understand that there is a bigger world surrounding us, the less likely they will be to think only of their own needs and interests, and the more likely they will be to see nuances in situations.
Laurie Gray, an author and founder of Socratic Parenting in Fort Wayne, Indiana, says she tells kids that fair is “THE four-letter word that starts with F.” Instead of dwelling on their conception of it, she encourages them to focus on kindness, cooperation and gratitude.
“One thing that has worked well with my own daughter is to use an affirmation poem,” she says. “For the past four years, every night before she goes to sleep, my daughter affirms, ‘I am grateful. I am kind. I create what’s on my mind. Perfect health … prosperity … my world reflects the change in me.’”
Her child is now 9 and doesn’t spend a lot of energy worrying about whether she’ll get her fair share, because she doesn’t view the world as a zero-sum game where there can never be enough to go around.
Ultimately, with discussions and habits like these, we give our kids an opportunity to realize that their happiness doesn’t hinge as much on what they get as it does on what they have to give — gaining a great deal of personal satisfaction as they do it.
Mom’s Homeroom columnist Martha Brockenbrough is a former high school teacher whose students have been published in The New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor and elsewhere. She has written three books, one on parenting, one on grammar, and one for children. For nearly a decade, she wrote an educational humor column for the encyclopedia Encarta, and she founded both the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar and National Grammar Day. She is the social media director for readergirlz.org, a teen literary organization that has won a National Book Award for innovation. Martha has taught creative writing to elementary school students and has two daughters in elementary school — who almost always remember to put their homework in their backpacks.