Recently a friend shared a story about her son, the sniffles, and a host of bad feelings. It seems that the son thought his mom had paid way more attention to his older sister when she had a cold, and this child was feeling very hurt and neglected. It was one of those poignant bedtime scenes: you are tucking in your child, asking him how his day was, and he tells you with a quivering voice that he isn’t as loved, cared for, or important as someone else in your family. So immediately in your head you do a check. “Is there any truth to this? Did I spend more time with the other one? Did I fuss more? Did I say something that was unfair?” These are the killer questions parents can lay on themselves.
The Cinderella Story
There is a reason why the story of Cinderella, or some variation of it, has been on record for over 600 years. Children identify with Cinderella because her life is so pitiful and her siblings, who are so mean and miserable, are treated like princesses. Often children, who are fairly self-centered by nature, see the world through out-of-focus glasses that can make their lives sometimes seem dark and dreary. Their family doesn’t really appreciate them; others are given more or treated better, and it is all very unfair. There are times in most children’s lives when they see their world this way.
As a parent, you can feed into your children’s perceptions of their world even if you try hard to be kind, loving, fair, and compassionate. You want each child to feel special, safe, cherished. Suppose you aren’t being as kind, loving, fair, and compassionate to each child in equal measure? Because you are conscientious, you can be thrown when you see that you are not treating each child the same. Is it even possible to be that fair? Is that really your job? And is it in your children’s best interests?
I think the answer to these questions is “no.” It is not possible to be perceived by your children as totally fair, and parents who try to keep everything equal often feel incompetent and negligent. An interesting principle of healthy parenting is that your job is not to treat each child the same but rather to assess and meet each child’s unique needs. THAT is what real fairness involves.
Imagine if, in the spirit of equality, everyone in the family had to drink the same amount of water every day. If one person were thirstier than another, would he or she be denied another glass of water? Or would everyone else have to drink more that day?
In the real world, you may find that one child needs more assistance with homework than another child in the family for any one of a number of reasons: he or she isn’t ready to work independently, some assignments are more challenging than others, or some subjects just don’t come as easily to some children as they do to other children. Or perhaps one child needs more time and attention to prepare for his upcoming sports event or to perform in a play because she is temperamentally slower-to-warm. In such cases, it would be more unfair to treat all children the same.
Fair Does Not Mean Equal
When parents teach children that “fair” is not about everything being identical but rather is about meeting individual needs, some of the parents’ anxieties around being equitable and the pressure to be faultless can be relieved. Children are less able to use guilt to influence parents and over time can come to appreciate the value of responding to each person’s individual needs as the ultimate measure of fairness in families. This will help children become less self-centered, more aware of the needs of others, and perhaps better able to realize when what they have is really enough.
If a child laments, “That’s not fair!” a parent might respond, “It may not be equal. However, my job is not to do everything equally. My job is to try to meet everyone’s needs in as fair a way as I can.” If nothing else, this response will probably stop your child in his tracks for at least a few minutes the first time you use it. It is harder to argue against this viewpoint!
Your children probably will continue to enjoy Cinderella and at times will believe their lives are miserable and fraught with injustices. After all, don’t most of us like to complain when we perceive that others are getting more than their “fair” share?By Diane Wagenhals, Director, Parenting Resource and Education Network
For more information about managing sibling rivalry, check out the following books. Purchasing from Amazon.com through our website supports the work we do to help parents do the best job they can to raise their children.
If you found this article helpful, click here to make a donation to The Center for Parenting Education. Your support will enable us to continue to provide quality information free of charge.