Family, Kids & Relationships

How to respond to “It’s not fair”

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As parents, we’ve all heard the dramatic cries of “It’s not fair!” or “That’s so unfair!” And we’ll often respond with something to the effect of “Well, life isn’t fair!” While that might be sort of true, is it helpful? This kind of response is akin to saying “grow up” or “get used to it”—but the problem is, it doesn’t offer our kids the tools or support to actually do those things. Plus, it completely dismisses how kids are feeling.

You’ve got to try to see things from your kid’s perspective to understand why they’re complaining about things not being fair. And they’re also going to need some help to see what’s really fair or unfair for everyone involved.

Here are some ideas of how to respond in ways that get at the root of the problem—and solve it—rather than pushing it to the side and dismissing our kids in the process.

Ask questions to dig deeper

Before jumping to conclusions or writing off their complaints as no big deal, ask questions to find out where your child is coming from and to help them come to a better understanding of the situation. For example:

  • “Which part is not fair?”
  • “Why does that make you upset?”
  • “Did you think we were going to buy candy at the store today?”

Maybe you’ll find out that your child doesn’t quite understand the meaning of “fair,” or that they’re really upset about something else.

Validate their feelings

You can’t just convince kids not to feel that they’ve been wronged—even if you don’t agree. Instead of telling them that something is not a big deal or that they’re overreacting, try taking a step back and asking, “Is that important to you?”

Let them know it’s okay to feel hurt, upset, or disappointed. Saying something as simple as “I understand why you feel that way” helps your child know they’ve been heard, and can help them move on when they’re ready.

Get them into someone else’s shoes

Most kids will need help pausing to consider other people’s perspectives, so that they can really understand what’s fair or unfair for everyone involved. You can role play or switch roles, and ask hypothetical questions to get them thinking. Some ideas of how to start:

  • “Can you think of a time when you got to do something and your brother didn’t? How do you think he felt about that?”
  • “Let’s pretend you’re the parent and I’m the kid. What would you say to me?”
  • “If you were the teacher, do you think you would have done something differently?”

Discuss why “fair” doesn’t always mean “the same”

Many kids will balk anytime they don’t get exactly the same as someone else. Rather than going to great lengths to make everything halvsies, help them understand how things can often be perfectly fair without being exactly the same for everyone. A few examples:

  • Adults and older kids can stay up later because their bodies don’t need as much sleep.
  • Babies need more help because they can’t do most things independently yet.
  • People with disabilities can park closer to the entrance because it may be harder or more time consuming for them to get inside. 

Encourage them to think of other examples of when “fair” doesn’t mean “the same.”

Brainstorm solutions together

“Fair” means fair for everyone, so ask kids how things in the current situation that feels unbalanced could be made more fair for everyone next time. Let siblings take turns sharing ideas, and guide them through considering what’s fair or unfair about each potential solution.

Even if the “unfair” situation is out of your control, it’s still useful to listen to kids’ opinions and to help them hone their problem-solving skills and their understanding of justice. They could even turn their thoughts into a short story or a letter to someone in charge.


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Joanna Eng is a freelance writer and editor, Lambda Literary Fellow, and co-founder of Dandelions, a parenting and social justice newsletter. She lives with her wife and child in the New York City area, where she is constantly seeking out slivers of nature. You can find her on Twitter @joannamengland.