We’ve all heard children say, “It isn’t fair.” Most children have an innate sense of fairness or justice, often because they’ve not yet been conditioned to see differences in outcomes. This is why so many children raise issues of unfairness when they see it, especially when it concerns themselves. While many parents simply dismiss such statements, they provide a perfect teaching moment to help them understand what fairness is and the best ways to address it.

Many parents, when they hear their children complain about being treated unfairly, have a tendency to dismiss it by reminding them that “life isn’t fair.” While this sentiment is certainly true – life is often unfair – and children must learn at some point that things will not always go their way, you must ask yourself is this the lesson that you want your children to gain? Life is also cruel, but this doesn’t mean that you want to expose your children to cruelty. Most children understand that life isn’t always fair, for they likely have already been mistreated at some point, by teachers, by other children or parents, or simply by circumstances not always going their way. What they are looking for is help in understanding why something their parents have done seems unfair, and justifying tyrannical decisions simply because life is unfair is not always helpful.

Rather than trying to teach them that life is unfair, you could use the situation to explain the differences in equality, equity, and fairness or justice. There are several graphics out there, which you’ve probably seen, that try to show the differences in these terms. The most popular is a picture of a tall man, a young man, and a child trying to look over a wooden fence. In an equal solution, they all receive the same remedy – a single crate on which to stand – which does not help the child because even with the crate he is still too short to see over the fence. It’s a one-size-fits-all solution. An equitable solution is to give everyone exactly what they need – the tall man needs no crate, the young man needs one, the child needs two. It’s dependent on what a person needs. A just or fair solution, however, might be to replace the wooden fence with a chain link one so that they all can see without being given help. It removes what was causing the inequity to begin with. In a like manner, the best approach is not to give people aid or try to figure out what they need but to change the system or circumstances to avoid the situation.

Of course, in real life the situation is almost always more complex than this simple drawing. Equality can mean giving everyone the same thing, but that’s not the only or even the primary definition. In mathematics, equal means a sum, value, or outcome that’s the same, meaning that everyone ends up in the same place. However, as many people observe, outcome is also dependent on the effort put into it. This is why some people talk about equality of opportunity versus equality of outcome. Equality can also mean that everyone’s the same, which is clearly untrue. There are differences in sexes, ages, and capabilities and desires. Equality of opportunity or equality before the law doesn’t mean everyone is exactly the same. Meanwhile, while equity is often defined as giving someone what they need to get to the same place, it can also mean being impartial. However, impartiality can sometimes result in decisions that some people may not like, such as randomly selecting who gets to play with a toy. Justice may mean changing a system or equalizing the scale by helping one group over another, but it more often means people getting what they deserve. Whenever I complained about being punished for something I didn’t do, my mother would always ask if I had done nothing that deserved punishment, a valid point.

Parents can raise any of these points when talking to their child. Is it always right to give people the same thing, or is it sometimes more important to give people what they actually need or deserve? If one child likes reading, and one likes sports, is it fair to reward them both with time outside to play? If one child did chores and the other didn’t, is it fair for them both to get the same time off? Some children are older and need more space or privacy. Is it fair to expect them to share their room or closet? It might be fair for all three children to have a room, but if your house only has two rooms, what is a fair sleeping arrangement? If two children both want to play with a toy, would the children be happy if you flipped a coin, and they lost? Asking questions such as these helps children to understand that equality of outcome may not always be fair, that impartiality or justice may not turn out the way they want, and that sometimes the fairest solution is unavailable, forcing parents to make merit-based decisions. Regardless, parents must make absolutely clear that, whatever differences may exist in the children, their abilities, or their situations, a parent’s love and God’s love for them will always be unchanging.

Sometimes life is unfair, but that doesn’t mean that the decisions parents make have to be. Sometimes efforts at equality, equity, or justice don’t turn out the way we expect, or it requires balancing one value against another. Helping children understand why parents make the decisions they do not only can diffuse angst about a current decision; it also helps children appreciate the differences in values and approaches in the future. When life isn’t fair, use it as a lesson to teach.

© 2022 J.D. Manders