“But, It’s Not Fair!”

Clues on Kids #005

Do you remember how unfair your parents were when you were a kid?  Do you remember that day as a child with tears steaming down your face when you first took that solemn vow to NEVER BE AS MEAN AND AS UNFAIR AS YOUR MOM AND DAD?  

Oh, yes.  I remember.  I swore to all that was good in the world with my fist raised to the heavens that I would know how to be a GOOD PARENT!  I’d be fair and merciful with my future children… WHAT HAPPENED?

child upset at father for not allowing dangerous activity that other parents allow


What happened was that you grew up and became a parent.  Having a child means that you now have to make these judgment calls using your adult brain, NOT your 7-year-old brain.  Consequently, you might be falling into the very common trap of second-guessing your judgment calls because of how unfair your offspring think you are.  The two of you view fairness quite differently.  If you base your parenting ability on how fair your kid judges you to be, then you are operating from a place of fear and not from your child’s best interest.

FEAR?  More like, “DREAD!”  I can lay down the law and bravely establish a rule.  I know how to say, “No!” but my kid loses control every time and tells me that I’m not fair.  If she doesn’t get exactly what she wants, then I’m horrible and she hates me!

It’s important to understand that your daughter might not be able to fathom any good rationale for why she shouldn’t be allowed to stay up until 3:00am watching sexy R-rated music videos and eating a half-gallon of melting Rocky Road ice cream on your brand new white chenille couch.  What could go wrong?  After all, every one of her friends’ parents allow it.  You’re so unfair!

From your child’s perspective, she feels that she is more than capable of determining what is appropriate for her without your meddling.  The reason for this is because she has a limited ability to see beyond her own immediate gratification.  This limitation is the result of three important factors:

  1. A lack of life experience (she hasn’t made enough mistakes to learn from yet).
  2. An immature brain that hasn’t developed the ability to process “cause & effect” the way an adult is able to do.  For example:
    1. An adult’s way of thinking:  IF I take two minutes and make my bed, THEN my Dad won’t get angry at me for watching cartoons.
    2. A child’s way of thinking:  I WANT TO WATCH CARTOONS!!!!!!
  3. A limited capacity to patiently postpone immediate gratification.

Therefore, she is convinced that achieving her own happiness, no matter what form that takes, satisfies her wellbeing.

So does that excuse my kid’s whiney temper tantrums?  I don’t want him to be a spoiled child who acts like a baby!

Children have big emotions and for good reason.  Emotions help children communicate what they cannot say through rational intellect.  Your kid may be extremely verbal and have a masterful vocabulary at his disposal, however due to his brain only being 5-years-old, he lacks the ability to clearly process his emotions, understand those feelings and then articulate to you what’s going on inside.  Therefore, it is our job as parents to empathically connect those big angry outbursts or sullen crying spells to the limited words that he may have expressed that led you both to opposing sides of the Chasm of Fairness.

So, now you’re expecting me to be a mind reader?  Are you actually saying that if I use my magic ESP powers to decode her brain, then my kid will calm down, be less manipulative and follow the rules… which aren’t that hard to follow in the first place?

It doesn’t take magic or ESP to connect to your child’s emotions.  You know what it feels like to be so angry that you want to hurt someone.  You know what it feels like to be so sad and hurt that you feel like you’ll never recover.  You know what it feels like to be so scared that you just want to run away and hide forever.  If you can recognize and acknowledge the amount of anger, sadness or fear she has when she is challenging your fairness, then yes, there’s a good chance she’ll become more cooperative and maybe even willing to see things from a different point of view.  That’s the beginning of an ever-expanding maturity and emotional intelligence that helps her recognize that she is not the only person in the world and that the opinions and feelings of others need to be considered from time to time when making decisions.  

Your daughter is not consciously trying to be manipulative while berating you for setting limits around computer use at nighttime.  What she is actually doing is unconsciously trying to communicate an unmet emotional need.

What “emotional need” is my kid trying to get met?

Well, in the case of the nocturnal computer gamer, ask yourself, 

“What does my kid feel when she’s playing video games?”

Is it a desire for more control in her life? (Computer games offer a beautiful illusion of control.)  Perhaps she’s lonely and bored at home and video games distract her from the sadness.  Or maybe school is getting too overwhelming and she’s anxious to go to sleep because tomorrow’s class is that much closer.  Of course these are just a few examples; it could be any number of reasons.  Once you can narrow down some causes as to why she seems to need to play video games until the wee hours of the morning, then ask yourself, 

“How can we meet that need in a more healthy way?”

When you think about the situation in this way (trying to understand what the need is), then you can more easily empathize with those big emotions.  Since your daughter has not developed advanced cognitive and communication skills, much less the awareness of her actual emotional needs, she has no choice but to use her emotions to say what she can’t put to words.

So how am I supposed to respond to the irrational and dramatic attempts my 9-year-old son makes to have unlimited access to the Internet?

Respond with patience, respect and serenity… even if he can’t.  Maintain the boundaries that you feel are important, but also address his emotional needs.  Since he generally won’t consciously recognize that these boundaries are best for him, when you set a limit that prevents his immediate happiness, you will be seen as… unfair.  However, you will be less of a monster if you can demonstrate that you understand.  You can even acknowledge your understanding by saying something like, 

“I know you think it’s unfair.  I’m sorry this is so hard for you to understand, but as the grown-up, I can see the some of the dangers of using going online that can’t see yet.”  

If he asks you to explain what they are, then do so honestly and respectfully.  On the flipside, if you base your choices and interactions with your kids on how they perceive fairness, you’ll end up teaching your kids to walk all over you.  Your kids will get straight A’s in that subject and by the time they’re teenagers… look out!

Okay but how do I get my kids to understand that I really am being fair so we don’t keep arguing?  My kid doesn’t care about my reasons.  He’d never stop screaming enough to listen!

The more opportunities you have to really demonstrate empathy, listen openly to their reasons and show that you want to work together, the more your child will start to hear and trust your guidance.  However, ultimately your job is not to convince them that you’re being fair.  After all, you’ll never 100% succeed at that.  Your job is to set the rules that you know are fair and stick to them.  There is not a person living or that ever has lived who had a fair parent. 

Just be the best parent that you can be.  Try some of these clues to guide your way:

  • Think through your house rules before declaring them.
  • Don’t make your house rules impossible for your kids to follow or for you to implement.
  • Enforce your rules with compassion and without shame or vengeance.
  • Calmly explain your decisions at an age appropriate level.
  • Avoid repeating yourself in a desperate attempt to help your kids understand.
  • Admit when you make a mistake and set the example on how to give a sincere apology even though they can’t reciprocate it yet.

And most importantly…

Strengthen your connection and relationship with your child!  The stronger the trust and bond that your child feels between the two of you, the more cooperative she will be.

That’s really hard to do.  It sounds like you are asking me to be a perfect parent.

Not at all.  I promise you that you’re going to make many mistakes.  That’s okay.  It’s generally not about how many mistakes you make as a parent; it’s more often about how you take responsibility for those mistakes and realizing that you are setting the example for your kids… especially when they don’t follow.  

Remember that you are not alone in wanting to be fair and accepted by your kids.  Most parents want that.  Just as you want your kids to see the bigger picture, you not only need to see it, but also lead the way toward that bigger picture.  Often saying “no” is the fairest word you can say to help your child grow into a healthy adult.  

(updated article from July 2008)

Remember that children are born to make mistakes… That’s how they learn.

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