We’ve all heard it. Your child throws a bit of a tantrum, or puts their hands on their hips or face, and delivers the proclamation: “It’s not fair!” Emphasis is of course added to that word, “fair,” which is central to this complaint coming from your child. It’s a common phrase and also one that parents and adults struggle to respond to appropriately. Whether siblings received different size presents, one got to go first on the slide, or your 13-year-old is told they can’t watch an R-rated movie, the response may very well be, “It’s not fair.”

Each time your child announces that something isn’t fair, it’s an excellent learning opportunity for both your child and you. Remember, your child’s early development will play a formative role in the way they interact with others as they are growing up. So, what’s the best way to react to this phrase? We’ll explore the different ways adults and children perceive the concept of fairness, what your child really means when they say something isn’t fair, common responses that don’t seem to work, and the best way to respond to this interjection.

Parent Versus Child Perceptions of What “Fair” Means

A child pouts during an "It's Not Fair" argument

Baby Child Girl” used with permission via Pixabay by PublicDomainPictures

As adults, we often interchange fair and equal, which is a concept we can’t impress upon a child. For example, maybe last time, your daughter went first on the swing, and this time, your son will go first. You are operating on the understanding that this time and that time will balance out, creating a fair and equal share in the activity. But your child is not thinking back to the order of things in the past. Instead, they are focused on the moment, and getting what they perceive as fair right now.

What Does Your Child Mean When They Say, “It’s Not Fair”?

Now that we’ve established that adults and children have very different perceptions of what the term “fair” must mean, what does your child actually say when they announce, “It’s not fair!”? Simply stated, this is a form of protest. The child’s real feeling is most likely that they don’t like what’s going on. They’re trying to draw your attention to how they feel. They want an emotional reaction from you because this would bring you to the same level of emotion they’re feeling. In some sense, this would create a new balance of “fairness” between you.

If you respond to the child in an incorrect way, you may simply be fueling their emotional response. Your child may have the subconscious perception that they can get your attention by throwing a tantrum, hoping you will compensate and make up for what they’ve missed out on — and give them what they wanted in the first place. It’s very important not to respond irrationally.

Common Responses That Don’t Work

One of the most common responses to this saying is, “Well, life isn’t fair!” Unfortunately, telling a child that life isn’t fair won’t get you very far. A young child has no concept of fairness, despite using the term (which is most likely just a phrase they picked up from home or friends). This response is also sarcastic, and sarcasm doesn’t work on children. Using this response may also have the negative affect of teaching your child that they must simply get used to a lifetime of disappointments and frustrations, which is certainly not the outcome you’re aiming for.

Another mistake is to give in directly to the child’s complaint. As a parent, you must be willing to draw lines even if that means your child will be disappointed. If you change your direction the moment your child gets upset, you’re showing them that they can manipulate you. It’s your role as the parent to maintain control and use these experiences as learning moments, not opportunities to award bad behavior.

How To Respond to “It’s Not Fair!”

One of the best proactive ways to address this is to eliminate the phrase from your own vocabulary. Children pay very close attention to how we respond to things, so if you have found yourself saying “It’s not fair,” recognize that this will be absorbed by the child and it’s best to avoid saying it entirely.

Consider that fair and equal are not the same thing. Often, we try to provide “equally” for our children. For example, if one child gets a new shirt for school, the other gets a new shirt, even if they don’t need it. Reconsider this approach, and instead make those kinds of purchases when they’re necessary, and don’t placate the other child simply to avoid confrontation.

Tolerate your child’s reaction, acknowledge how they feel, allow them to have their moment, and move on. Say, “I understand that’s upsetting to you — you also wanted a new shirt.” Acknowledgement is a powerful tool. You aren’t giving in to your child’s tantrum, but you are letting them know that you hear what they’re saying and understand their emotions.

Then, practice the art of waiting. Your child does not need instant gratification in this circumstance. Don’t be quick to give in to your child’s complaints. Teaching that you get what you want when you whine is a bad practice anyway. Allow the child to feel disappointed and tolerate this experience. The healthiest response to this is a balance of encouragement and empathy. They will grow from this experience and be better for it. So will you!

Try To Turn These Interactions Into Learning Moments

Responding appropriately to “It’s not fair!” is important for your child’s development and will help strengthen your parenting skills. It’s also very important to combine constructive lessons like this with additional educational elements, such as enrolling your child in well-rounded learning programs. We hope this article helped you gain a bit of insight into what your child is trying to say when they use this phrase. Let us know if you have any other tips as a parent or caregiver, by contacting us here.