How to Handle “That’s Not Fair!”

How to Handle “That’s Not Fair!”

Most parents have been there: Your child senses an imbalance in the universe, and they’re on the wrong side of it. Cue tears, stomping feet and an oh-so-mournful cry: “That’s not fair!”

Maybe your little one is upset because a sibling got a slightly larger slice of pie for dessert or bedtime is a bit earlier than they’d like. No matter the circumstances, fairness is something children tend to feel strongly about.

What’s the best way to talk about fairness?

We reached out to Lynn Louise Wonders, MA, LPC, RPT-S, an early childhood development and parenting expert, with some questions our children have asked us. Here are her helpful tips on navigating the fairness question.

Offer an explanation.

Why does Mateo earn more allowance than I do?

You might say, “Ah! You’re wondering why your older brother gets more allowance than you, huh? That’s actually a really good question! Mateo is older and has bigger responsibilities, so he gets a bigger allowance. As you get older and your responsibilities grow bigger, you also will earn more allowance.”

Shelby gets to stay up later than I do! 

Try responding with, “Yes, you noticed Shelby does get to stay up later than you do, and I understand that bothers you. Shelby is older than you are, so her bedtime is later. When you’re her age, you’ll be able to stay up later, too.”

Acknowledge their feelings.

Why can’t we get a dog? Everyone else has one. I love dogs.

You might say, “Oh, you do love dogs, don’t you? It would be so fun to have a dog, I know. It does seem like most other families we know have a dog, yes. I can see you feel disappointed that we don’t have a dog.” Then offer a simple explanation, whether it’s that we don’t have the right kind of yard, or your dad is allergic to dogs, or we travel a lot and it would be unfair to leave the dog home so much. Then it may be useful to turn the child’s attention to what they do have, such as a cat, a bicycle or a zoo nearby.

Why did Aunt Jasmine give Dion a nicer gift than she gave me?

Try something like this: “I hear that you feel Dion’s gift was nicer than the one you received. I’m sure that might feel confusing for you. What I know is that Aunt Jasmine loves you AND she loves Dion, and I’m sure the gifts she gives are always from the love she has in her heart.”


Why can’t I have these shoes? Fatima in my classroom has them.

Try something like, “That would be fun to have shoes just like Fatima’s, wouldn’t it? Yeah, I can understand how much you would like to have them. [Pause.] Sometimes we just can’t have the things we want when we want them, and it can feel disappointing, I know. [Redirect.] Hey! Look at those fun decorations they put out for the holidays. Want to go have a closer look?”

Why can’t I play outside in the rain? It’s not cold!

You might say, “It would be fun to play in the rain. But we won’t do that today because I do not want you to get all wet. I’ll tell you what you can do, though. You and I could build a rainy day fort and turn off the lights, take flashlights in and read books together! What do you think?”

It’s natural for a young child to have questions when they see a sibling receive a “better” holiday present or when a friend has something that they want, too. This can shake their sense of justice.

Fortunately, talking through these experiences can help teach your child about fairness, including that tough but important lesson that things aren’t always fair. This will help your child build resilience for life’s challenges ahead.

To learn more about developing character in children, read:

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