Spoiler alert: it is not by saying, “Yeah, well life’s not fair!”
Children are not immune to the inequalities and injustices of the world. Sometimes they see more of what is going on around them than their parents and caregivers give them credit for. That being said, sometimes kids still respond to something as simple as not getting their way with cries of inequity.
As a matter of fact, cries of “no fair” can be heard on ball fields, over the tops of lost board games, and in the toy aisles of grocery stores all around the world.
Fair, in this context, means “free from bias, dishonesty, or injustice.” Your child is probably right when they complain about something being unfair; studies on inequality in America highlight a widening gap in everything from racial to economic disparities across the board. However, responding to a complaint over who gets to play with the tablet the longest with, “Yeah, well life’s not fair” is not the answer. Experts believe that the way children learn to respond to life’s little injustices (however real they may be) will play a role in how they deal with life’s bigger injustices down the road.
So, what is a parent to say when their child starts humming the opening chorus of “It’s a hard knock life?” Read on for our list of eight responses for when your kid calls foul.
“I understand why you feel that way”
Maybe you do, and maybe you do not, but starting off the conversation with your child by letting them know that you understand, or that you “grasp the significance, implications, or importance of their complaint,” can go a long way to neutralizing any temper tantrum that was building.
Then you can begin a conversation about why they think they’ve been given the short end of the stick and get to the bottom of what’s bothering them: maybe their little brother really did get to use the tablet for twice as long, causing the battery to run out before they finished their game.
The word understand was first recorded before 900, and comes from the Middle English understanden (parents have probably been dealing with complaints about a tablet since they were actual stone tablets), and is the perfect way to let an upset child know that you grasp the significance of their complaint.
“It’s not unfair, it’s just not what you want”
When we don’t get the thing we desire, which means “wish, long for, crave, or want,” it can feel pretty unfair. But the difference between being denied your desired outcome, and actual injustice, is a mile wide.
Of course, for younger children, it doesn’t feel that way. To them the thing they long for—whether it’s something they spotted at the grocery store or five more minutes on the playground—is serious business.
The word desire comes from the Middle English desiren and dates back to around 1200–50. It ultimately derives from the Latin dēsīderāre (“to long for, require”).
If the big kid in your life is confusing desire with discrimination—”the act of making a distinction in favor of or against, a person or thing based on the group, class, or category to which that person or thing belongs rather than on individual merit”—as something that is actually unfair, you can point that out. But for the nine-and-under set, you may be better off using smaller words and explaining that their wishes are not your commands. Just because you say “no” does not mean that you’re being unfair.
“Fair doesn’t always mean same” or “equality vs. equity”
There is a cartoon that circulates the internet every few years to illustrate the difference between equality, which means “the state or quality of being equal in quantity, degree, value, rank, or ability,” and equity, meaning “something that is fair and just.”
In the drawing, three people of varying heights are trying to look over a fence to watch a ballgame. In the first frame they are all given an equal amount of the same box. This allows the tallest person to stand heads above the shortest person, who cannot even see over the fence with their lone box. In the next frame, the tallest person (who could see just fine without the box in the first place) has given his box to the shortest of the three so that he has two boxes to stand on, and the person in the middle stands upon just one, giving them equality.
The word equality is first recorded in English around 1350–1400 and is derived from the Latin aequālis (“equal, like”). Equity, on the other hand, has a much older history and was first recorded in 1275–1325. It is derived from aequitās (“evenness, smoothness, fairness”).
Fair does not look the same across the board, which can be a hard concept for a younger child to understand. Especially when something seems unfair just because it is different (like big sister’s later bedtime, less restrictive car seat, or ability to watch PG-13 movies). So, maybe save the equality vs. equity explanation for bigger kids, and instead explain to the nine-and-under set that fair does not mean the same.
“That’s your perception, but the reality is …”
When dealing with older kids, cries of unfairness are often a result of perception, or “the act or faculty of perceiving, or apprehending by means of the senses or of the mind, cognition, or understanding.” In other words, it is all in their head … sort of.
The word perception stems from the 1350–1400 Middle English percepcioun and is related to comprehension, which is “the act of understanding.”
You may run up against your child’s laments of unfairness when you say “no” to something that, in their mind, was a slam dunk “yes.” In these situations it is best to operate with the facts. For example, if your older child is home on break from school and asks to have a few beers (because they’re going to be 21 in a few months), explain to them that it has nothing to do with fair. It is the law. Their perception may be that almost 21 is the same as 21, so it does not feel right that you would say no (especially if you were aware they are drinking on campus).
“Let’s talk about your expectations”
What do you do when your kid has high apple pie in the sky hopes, and then reality comes crashing down on top of them? You talk about expectations, or “the degree of probability that something will occur,” and how sometimes they do not get met, and that is hard.
Experts suggest using empathy and encouragement to try to help your child work their way through disappointment. In the future, they will be better equipped to handle some of life’s bigger letdowns.
The word expectation comes from the Latin expectātiōn, which means “an awaiting,” and dates back to approximately 1530–40. This year has left a lot of kids of all ages in a suspended state of awaiting. Children can become frustrated when their expectations are left unmet. Teaching them to understand and adjust their expectations will go a long way to managing that feeling.
“When life hands you lemons, make lemonade”
There is a bright side to an abundance of lemons: lemonade. Unfortunately, there is no bright side when your child is in the throes of sadness because something unfair has happened. However, teaching them optimism, or how to develop a “disposition or tendency to look on the more favorable side of events or conditions” and “to expect the most favorable outcome,” can stop those throws in their tracks.
Was the game canceled because of a thunderstorm? You might say, “Yes, that does seem unfair, but what if you were to take this free afternoon and pull out one of those models that we never have time to put together?”
The concept of finding a way to look on the bright side of life’s unfair moments has been around a long time. The word optimism comes from the French optimisme, and from the Latin optimus or “best,” superlative of bonus (“good”).
Teach your child how to look on the bright side and maybe you will hear complaints of “no fair” a lot less often!
“Can we fix it?”
Fans of Bob the Builder will tell you, “Yes, we can.” Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. Not everything can be repaired, or “restored to a good or sound condition after decay or damage.” That can go for dropped ice cream cones, broken toys, and so much more.
The word repair dates back to 1300–50, and it stems from the Middle English repairen.
Of course, not all repairs are physical. Your kid may be calling foul because of something you cannot make right: a broken promise from a friend, an offer rescinded, or missing out on the last open spot on the volleyball team.
It is true that not everything that feels unfair is unfair. It is also true that not everything that is unfair has to stay that way. Some wrongs can be righted, and some injustices fixed. If your child is complaining about something being unfair, try talking through the situation with them and seeing if there is a way to repair things and find an equitable solution. No, you probably cannot get them back onto the volleyball team—which likely had less to do with unfairness and more to do with tryouts—but there are some situations in which you can brainstorm an equitable solution for their problems.
“Yes, it is. I’m sorry you’re disappointed”
You know what, sometimes life is unfair. And that can be wildly disappointing, or “failing to fulfill one’s hopes or expectations.” Sometimes when it comes to disappointment, the best thing you can do is learn to accept it and find some coping mechanisms that will work well for your child: a walk, some ice cream, maybe even just a warm hug and a snuggle.
Figure out what works to help your child curb their disappointment (which as a word was first recorded in 1605–15), and then help them learn to manage their feelings.
Because yes, as grownups, we can get annoyed or frustrated with kids of all ages when they cry out about life being “unfair” but that doesn’t change the fact that sometimes it is unfair. And sometimes children just need someone to hold their hand and tell them that they will be OK anyway.