“It’s Not Fair!”

Either my girls are going through a developmental phase right now, or they’ve picked this phrase up somewhere… but “It’s not fair” has been all the rage in our household of late.

Caroline says “It’s not fair” when I thank Margaret for finishing her morning routine so quickly.

Margaret says “It’s not fair” when a simple coin toss means James gets the toy first.

Etc.

Etc.

Etc.

“It’s not fair” really pushes my buttons. Maybe because it’s used in situations that have nothing to do with justice: my cooing over Caroline’s blond hair as I brush it elicits an “It’s not fair” from the four-year-old brunette. Hmm… I do not think it means what you think it means.

The thing is, I coo over Margaret’s freckles, or the exuberant way she makes up songs. I like to think that such affirmations even out, and there’s something insincere about inventing something to affirm the other person for on the spot just so she’ll think it’s fair.

And I don’t like “Who said life was fair?” …as true as it is. Are we not supposed to be teaching our kids to “seek justice, and love kindness and walk humbly” (Micah 6:8)? The first part of that is about discerning what’s fair.

Still… grr, it’s annoying. I finally snapped last week and told them I didn’t want to hear “It’s not fair” anymore. I said, “Here’s what you can say: ‘I’m sad that…’ or ‘It makes me mad when…’ But I’m sick of ‘It’s not fair.’ There’s another reason I don’t want you to say it but I’ll tell you later.”

The next day, when I wasn’t so irritated, I explained myself, but I busted out that classic parental trope: the starving kids. God help me. I said:

There are children in this world who will die of diseases that you never have to worry about.

There are girls who do not have the right to go to school.

There are people who do not have enough to eat or a place to live.

And those things are not fair.

Do you get how those things are different than the gumball machine not giving you the color you wanted?

Well, it “worked.” They do not say “It’s not fair” anymore. They say “I’m sad” or “I’m mad” or “I feel left out.” To use the mental health term, they make “I” statements. All to the good. But I’m not sure I did the right thing. I think I justified myself by reasoning that they are not equipped to use justice language yet. (Also it’s just darn annoying.) But maybe part of childhood is to try to work out what’s fair and what’s not. And maybe that happens precisely through language. What if Caroline’s teacher calls on boys more than girls? Maybe it doesn’t rise to the level of the above stuff, but it’s still deeply unfair and should be named as such.

I’m curious what other parents (and non/parents) think about this.

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20 thoughts on ““It’s Not Fair!”

  1. Mamala says:

    I know you probably disagree with me on this, but I don’t think there is anything wrong with dishing out the “compliments” (for lack of a better word) on an even basis (as long as they are true). I know my “fab four” makes fun of me for this, but I feel justified in doing this. I figure, we can never say good things about each other enough, what with the way the world tries to knock us down constantly. And as long as I’m pointing out a good thing about one of you, why not also point out good things about the rest of you at the same time. I look at it as an “Oprah abundance” exercise.

  2. anne says:

    this isn’t a deep thought, but it IS the thought that came to mind first. it’s not fair that my friend’s daughter (a mother of 2 sons) was murdered by her estranged husband who then killed himself. that’s not fair. and that happened in the exurbs of n. va.

    and on the subject of children who are near in age comparing compliments from parents and others. it happens. a few years ago one of my sisters and i had a conversation where we realized that we each thought the other was offered ‘the coat of many colors’ (i know there are not alternate translations) by our mom on a regular basis. on the other hand all 4 of us felt like we were the favored daughter of our dad and we never realized that until after he died. don’t know how he managed to make us each feel so special, but i’d love to know the trick.

  3. Hunter’s teacher last year explained to us that she tries very hard to be fair, but that fair does *not* mean treating everyone exactly the same, because different people have different resources and strengths and capabilities, and it would therefore be *unfair* to treat them as though they were identical.

    As far as pointing out relative inequities on a global level, I think you did do the right thing. Expectations of entitlement create subtle corrosion, and a sense of perspective is important. As long as you balance it with a sense of gratitude and empowerment — essentially, living the Serenity Prayer — I don’t see a problem with telling kids that others have it far worse than we do.

  4. Rosa Lindahl says:

    At our church, our faith formation program is called the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd based on the work of Maria Montessori. Children are broken out in three age groups: 3-5, 6-8-9-11. One of the ways we were taught to recognize when a young child was ready to move from the first level to the second was when you heard them say, “but it’s not FAIR”. I almost burst out laughing the first time it happened. And indeed the young man in question had crossed into a new developmental place. I’ve seen it happen as young as late 4’s and some of the children move from the Good Shepherd Atrium to the True Vineyard atrium when they are six.

    I hope this is of help. For what it’s worth, I keep reading your blog and marveling at your ministry and your mothering (ooh, sort-of aliterate of me). Your response seems pretty appropriate. Peace. Rosa Lindahl from the workshop at the National Cathedral all those years ago when M was a baby in your arms..

    • mamdblueroom says:

      Rosa! So nice to hear from you!!!! Big hugs coming your way.

    • Sarah E says:

      I really don’t have anything new to add but would have made the “age/development” observation that Rose offered, and really encourage you to keep up the coaching for the “I statements.” And then wondering about asking M & C what “fair” means to them, and wondering about why it’s coming up/where it’s coming from??

  5. Kelly says:

    I love your response. Right on target. I think I’ll use it the next time one of my students says, “It’s not faaaiiirrr!”

  6. sherry says:

    I have been known to respond to that comment from children by saying, “you are right, it isn’t fair.” At those times I don’t try to make it fair, I just acknowledge that it isn’t. If it is appropriate, I also say that I am sorry that it isn’t fair.

    Of course, this works better with my patients when they have to get shots or bloodwork or (God Forbid) have some horrible diagnosis that really is.not.fair.

    For my own kids, I often wanted to show them exactly how unfair I could be……99.9% of the time I resisted that impulse.

  7. Laurie Fields says:

    I think the balance of complimenting on different traits is regular dialog about how we are different and that is a good thing. God made each of us unique – and blond hair and brunette hair are both beautiful in different ways. Neither is better – just 2 ways of beautiful. I try to talk with our girls – who I think are about a year younger than yours (mine are 6 – almost 7 and 3)regularly during “calm” moments – to reinforce what someone above said about fair not being equal to identical.
    I also try to talk about this concept at other times – and with other people. We all have gifts – one person might be a great reader, another has a gift for playing with younger kids, another… you get the idea. Gifts – abilities – aren’t inherently better or worse – just different. And what matters most is recognizing our gifts and using them as best we can. Maybe this would help? Not that you don’t do this already…..

  8. Rev Dr Mom says:

    I think talking about what “fair” really means (as you did) is great; I also think that simply commenting about why you might compliment one at a particular time and not the other might be a good tack, too.

    I realized when my kids were the age yours are now that I would *never* be completely fair and equitable with them no matter how hard I tried because their needs were so different. So while I did make a concerted effort to be affirmative with all of them, I quit apologizing for myself, and tried to help them understand more about what was going on. (And yes, occasionally I did resort to saying life’s not always fair.)

  9. sko3 says:

    I actually think the starving children trope is a trope because it’s something children understand. While I will never make S eat something because other kids are starving somewhere, but I do think it’s fine to point out to her examples of injustice that apply to KIDS (no school, no medicine, no food) as examples of what is or is not fair. And lest you think that having siblings prompts the not fair comments–S says it’s not fair when the CAT gets on my lap first.

  10. Silent says:

    I read this in the morning and then got down to sermon prep. Gospel of the rich man and Lazarus…this seems like an entry point that everyone in the congregation will relate to. “It’s not fair”–sounds an awful lot like what the rich man is saying.

  11. Ruth Everhart says:

    You’re a great mom, MA. I think it’s hard to share a mom, even a great one, don’t you? maybe “especially” a great one. So there is that little sting of wondering “who she loves more.” even when they know you love them all. I really think it’s just about conveying an abundance of love, which I’m sure you do, and they “get it” but they have to have that moment of complaint. But if they all get enough, then it’s fine. They will grow up confident of your love, that’s plain as day.

    I also hear you about justice and fairness. I don’t think it’s wrong to encourage a kid to see that they have it pretty durn good, at the same time letting them have their complaints. “That’s right, life isn’t fair.” and when they get older you can say “life sucks doesn’t it?” and mean it. And they will grow up and become champions of the people for whom life really does suck, big-time.

    I do notice how hard it is to let children have their negative emotions. Wouldn’t we all rather not have to deal with that? We’re busy dealing with our own negative emotions.

    and not to sound too over-the-top preacherish — but when they realize that many people in the world have true difficulties, those things will turn into automatic and heartfelt prayers from their lips and then you will be blessed.

    end of long ramble.

  12. mamdblueroom says:

    My commenters are all so smart! I love reading everyone’s thoughts…

  13. Grace says:

    Don’t have time to read all the comments, but my mother’s mantra was “We don’t keep score,” which came in very handy and which definitely related to her theology.

    Obviously, even if we don’t keep score we need to try to level the playing field between us and the Starving Children in Africa – her message was clearly just about our first-world problems and squabbles.

  14. Becca says:

    Boy do I hear ya! Laura is six and that’s a favorite around here. Usually it’s a ridiculous accusation, so my general response is, “Nope. It’s not.” But I also follow up by asking if it was fair for her to have originated the action that led to my doing whatever she thought was unfair. i.e. I put some of her toys in the attic after telling her that’s where’d they’d go if she didn’t clean up her room, she didn’t, they went, she said it was unfair. I asked if it was fair for her to leave her room a mess after I’d asked her to clean it.
    You get the idea. I will definitely have to try the “Here’s what you *can* say” spiel. I think that would work for her.

  15. keithsnyder says:

    It’s big in our house too, but I’ve got a (temporarily) effective countermeasure.

    CHILD: That’s not fair!

    PARENT: Child, what does “fair” mean?

    CHILD: I don’t know.

    PARENT: Then why are you saying it?

    CHILD: What does it mean?

    PARENT: We don’t use words when we don’t know what they mean.

    CHILD: TELL ME! TELL ME!

    PARENT: Nope.

    CHILD: Oh, DARNIT! DARNIT DARNIT!

    This also works with “school is boring.”

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