As children move from the parallel play stage (infants and toddlers), towards cooperative play (preschool years), it’s not uncommon for them to begin to notice differences and make comparisons between themselves and their peers. Along with this, come the words that every parent and caregiver has heard or will hear at some point: “It’s not fair!”
When your child goes to a birthday party and doesn’t get a gift; when a sibling gets a tablet for school projects and they don’t; when a friend has a toy they don’t have; when a classmate gets to use a classroom work or toy before them; when a friend gets to go ahead of them in the line; when they don’t win a prize they wanted; when a friend chooses to play with someone else. All of these circumstances can trigger feelings of “unfairness” because they, developmentally, cannot see the “big picture”, and from their ego-centric perspective, simply know that they have unpleasant feelings in response to these circumstances!
Young children may not even understand what they mean when they say, “It’s not fair!” as they do not have the thought process to understand that fair does not mean equal. At this age, their usually mean, “It’s not equal,” when they say, “It’s not fair.”
On a positive note, and in all fairness, preschool age children are very aware of when others are not treated fairly. One study showed that children would typically intervene when someone else was wronged, not just themselves! (Source.) This sense of awareness and empathy is something to be nurtured and cultivated, so we do not want to shame or silence their feelings of unfairness, whether it is for themselves, or others.
Here are some tips on how to respond when your child says, “It’s not fair!”
Ask: “What do you mean by ‘It’s not fair’?” “Can you tell me why you feel that way?” “Why do you say that?” “Why do you feel that way?”
Listen: allow your child an opportunity to explain what they are feeling and thinking. This is not the time to “correct” your child’s perception of a situation!
Acknowledge feelings: “I know you feel sad that you didn’t get that prize.” “It is hard to wait your turn, but I’m so glad that you will be able to do that in a couple more minutes!”
Acknowledge positive behavior: “I noticed how patiently you stood in line.” “I noticed how much you enjoyed giving your friend a gift.” “I noticed you sharing your toys with your friend.”
Encourage empathy: “How do you think you friend is feeling right now?” “Did you notice how excited she was?” “That friend looks sad. Let’s invite him to play hide and seek with us.”
Encourage gratitude: “Do you remember what we did to celebrate YOUR birthday?” “Do you remember when Nana gave you the play kitchen set? You really enjoy playing with it!” “I’m so grateful that we have ________!”
Encourage participation: “Let’s go back and finish the game. I saw you laughing and having fun with you friends!”
Be mindful what you Do you compare or make negative observations of others or your circumstances? Practice positivity and gratitude! You can also be mindful in how you treat your children: you don’t give your toddler the same bedtime as your middle school child, just to be “fair”. If your 6-year-old needs a new shirt, you don’t need to buy one for your 3-year-old to keep things “fair”. It’s important for children to learn that things should not always be “equal”.
As your child gets older, you can help them understand that fair doesn’t mean equal. For example, “equal” might mean that all children, including babies, don’t take naps! But that’s not actually “fair” because babies and young children need naps (and some older children, too!), while older children and adults don’t need them. Ask your child for examples of other times when it’s OK for there to be differences. You can also give them examples of what their life might be like if everything was “If everything was ‘fair’, then you wouldn’t get to have a cookie because your little sister can’t have one. Would you like that?”