How to Help When Kids Say “That’s Not Fair!”

Anybody who has a kid has almost certainly heard the phrase “That’s not fair!”

In our podcast episode on fairness, we explore how to help kids navigate feeling like things aren’t fair.

Help Kids Understand Fairness With This Glasses Analogy

Amanda Suarez, school psychologist and certified conscious parenting coach, tells a story about helping kids at school understand why one student seemed to get special privileges even though it seemed unfair.

When students complained to her about it, she asked, “Hey, remember when your classmate came back from winter break, and they had new glasses and got to sit closer up in the classroom so they could see what was happening on the whiteboard?”

When the students said they remembered, Amanda asked, “Why didn’t everyone switch their seat and get those same glasses?”

Immediately, the students recognized that giving everyone those same glasses would be ridiculous.

“Being fair is actually seeing what the need is and filling the needs of everyone, which are really unique,” Amanda says. “So it was that was one of the chances I had to really have a teaching moment about fairness and for kids to really internalize that fairness isn’t sameness. Fairness is seeing the needs that we all have — our own and others.”

Explore Fairness in a Marriage to Set an Example

Michelle Larson, marriage and family therapy associate, says that fairness surfaces in marriage — and that learning how to navigate it there can help kids navigate it in their lives. She says, “The way that this shows up often with couples is it usually looks like someone trying to solve a feeling problem with math. So it might look something like someone says, ‘You know what? You never help with the kids.’ And the other person responds with math, with numbers. They’re like, ‘I helped two times yesterday. And on Saturday, I did these four things.’ And what’s going to happen is they’re going to be in this cycle where they’re just going around and around because the numbers will actually never hit the actual thing that they’re talking about with fairness, which is, I have a need.”

When parents can learn to see the needs of each person in the family — including each other’s needs — they can work to remedy the problem.

Listen to the Underlying Need Behind a Sense of Unfairness

“When kids are saying it’s not fair there’s just a myriad of things they’re communicating,” says Amanda. “It could be that they’re communicating, ‘I saw something I wanted and I don’t have it.’ Or they could be communicating, ‘I don’t like this, and things aren’t going my way’ and they could be communicating something that really isn’t fair. They’re not being seen and they’re not being heard so as a parent I think it’s so important to look underneath, as Michelle was pointing to, look underneath the words, it’s not fair, this isn’t fair, that’s not fair, you’re not being fair, and find what is actually being communicated.”

And also not be moved to automatically solve or fix whatever the reason for the disgruntlement is sometimes it’s just a matter of saying, yeah, it’s hard when your friend has something you don’t have, that’s hard, just acknowledging and letting them be in the discomfort of the conversation and allowing them to have really uncomfortable feelings, holding that with them.

The Next Step

For the rest of this post, we’ve included a copy of the podcast transcript. Listen to the episode.

Amanda: I think the next step is unique to whatever it is that child is really communicating. If there really is unfairness, then there, there might be something to do. There might be action to take and it might just be a matter of having a listening ear and being present. With the child and the first time you do this It may not transform completely the way your child experiences unfairness.

And in fact, it probably won’t with fairness is an ongoing process. So The response when a child says that’s not fair is completely dependent on that child, that moment, that situation. And a parent can tune in to what that response wants to be if they’re centered and grounded and allowing and also not triggered themselves.

Sometimes we get into like power struggle. That’s not fair. Life’s not fair. And nobody’s being heard. No one feels. that anything could ever possibly be fair in those moments. So the response comes from listening deeply and being centered ourselves and responding to that child in that moment and what’s arising.

Michelle: Yeah, there’s a way that that question that you asked, John, there’s a natural unfolding. Like when someone actually really does feel heard and seen and they feel like the other person’s hearing them, then usually there’s this thing that just the next step is that it actually opens up creativity.

Actually, how do we get creative about this thing that feels unfair? So once someone feels heard, that next step usually comes quite naturally.

Jon: Yeah, you’re saying that once somebody feels heard, then they open up a space that’s collaborative and together they can invent whatever the situation calls for.

Michelle: Mm hmm, Yeah.

Expanding Fairness Into Justice

Jon: So we started this lesson in part, because a member reached out saying they were looking for a lesson on justice. And we knew we wanted to do that, but we also knew that many young kids can’t fully understand the concept of societal justice. That’s why we framed the lesson as fairness, but we also include curated videos and prompts to help teens engage with the concept of justice.

Michelle, do you have any thoughts about to help teens approach this topic?

Michelle: We actually have these questions in the lesson that I think are helping to build perspective taking, so we know what it feels like when we have a need or want that isn’t being met. And we want to advocate for fairness for ourselves. So really what this is asking for is how do we advocate for fairness, for justice at a bigger level?

And there’s some questions in the lesson that I really love. It says beyond our home, what can we do to make our community and world more fair? Are there people at school, work or in the city who are less fortunate? What’s one thing that we can do to make these places feel more fair?

And that goes to the heart of justice.

How do we make sure that everyone’s needs are met?

Amanda: And the foundation of that points back to that fairness isn’t saying or doing or giving the same to everyone, but it’s having an attitude of dignity and respect and compassion, that same compassion and respect and dignity for all. Humans, and even for all beings and for all of life, it expands as kids grow older, their ability to show compassion and respect and dignity expands.

And so there’s the concept of fairness that we can talk about and beyond that and more than that. Is if kids have the lived experience of being treated fair if we continually and rhythmically have a posture towards them of dignity, respect, and compassion, then it allows kids to trust the flow of life.

They know their needs will get met and they see that they can be active agents in helping meet the needs of others around them. And it won’t always happen in the way they want or the way they expect, but there’s just a trust that life will support them

Jon: Yeah, I love that. This idea that when kids are fully listened to and their underlying needs are heard, then they start to develop a sense of calmness toward life, a trust, as you said, that can then empower them to help meet the needs of people who may have been overlooked at a societal level, and that leads to a better sense of justice.

So go ahead and check out this lesson on fairness, use it as a way to instill a sense of fairness in the home. And as kids get older, looking to expanding that sense of fairness into a sense of justice. Thanks so much. Have a good day.