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It's the four-letter f-word parents dread. No, not that one. I'm talking about the word "fair".

You want to be a good parent. You want to do right by your child. And so when one of your kids suggests that your decision was unjust or unfair, it can definitely strike a nerve!

So, how do you know if you are being fair? And, what's more, how do you explain that to your child?

Favoritism is Unfair

Before we go any further, let's address one thing: it isn't OK to play favorites with your children. One really excellent way to breed deep and long-lasting animosity between your children is to let them know you favor one sibling over the others.

In Genesis we see the sad unfolding of generational trauma caused by favoritism from father to son over two generations, resulting in murderous hatred between siblings.

Some children will take more of your energy. Some children will irritate you more because their personality is so different from yours (or sometimes because it's so similar!). You might share more common interests with one child than another.

These are all normal experiences of humans interacting with other humans.

Favoritism is giving special treatment to one child at the expense of the others. Favoritism is placing more emphasis on the needs of one child than another.

However, a resolve to care for the needs of all of your children doesn't mean doing everything the same for everyone.

Perceptions of Favoritism Matter

Even if your conscience is clear that you are not favoring one child over another, it's still possible for your children to have that suspicion. Some times each child is convinced that the other is your favorite!

It might be tempting to react defensively and dismiss the concern as silly. But remember that if your child perceives that you have a favorite, this will impact his relationship with you and with his siblings whether it's true or not.

Take time to listen to his concerns. Ask him if he has particular examples in mind. Apologize for any time you have not understood or cared for him as you should have.

Thank him for sharing his concerns with you, assure him of your desire to care for him well, and ask him to pray for you to be an attentive and loving parent.

The Unhelpful Shortcut about Fair

Even if there isn't an overarching concern about favoritism, children may still call foul about your decision in a particular situation.

It's important to help our children understand what "fair" means.

Some parents just say, "Sorry. Life isn't fair!" This is true in the sense that things don't work out equally for everyone all of the time (or even most of the time). But this response is often more harmful than it is helpful.

When children say, "That isn't fair" they usually aren't expressing a concern about the nature of life and the universe. They are lodging a complaint about a decision made by you or someone else.

When we dismiss their concern with "Sorry! Life's not fair!" we convey that we don't feel any obligation to be fair and just in our decision making and that they shouldn't have any expectation of that from us. This only increases their feeling of insecurity and fear of unjust treatment.

If they actually are bemoaning the "unfairness" of a general life situation like a rained-out baseball game or a new baby that turned out to be a sister rather than a brother, this is a good time to talk about disappointments and losses and how to process those emotions.

Fair Isn't Always Equal

One of the most important steps to addressing the idea of "fair" is to help your children understand what that word means and what they can expect in your home.

"Fair" in the home does not mean that everyone gets exactly the same thing all the time. "Fair" means that parents will use their best judgement to give each child what is best for her in each specific situation.

One great way to help kids understand is to explain that they don't actually want us to give everyone the same thing all the time. Sure, one sibling might want the same thing another sibling got when it is something desirable.

But what about when one sibling won't clean his room. Should that prevent everyone from getting to go outside and play, just to be "fair"? If one sibling didn't follow the family rules for screen time, should everyone have their screen time taken away for the day in the name of "fair"?

This can help children to see that it's actually a good thing that mom and dad use wisdom in doing what is right for each individual child in each different situation.

Fair is Consistent Application of Principles

In the life of a family, there will be plenty of times when one child gets an opportunity or privilege that another child does not get. The difference between discretion and injustice is wise application of principles.

For example, we want to take good care of our bodies and get enough sleep. However, older kids might not need as much sleep as younger ones, or their bodies might have a different sleep schedule, so they might be allowed a later bedtime.

Another principle might be that we want to take good care of the new carpet in the living room and not get anything spilled on it. Older kids might be allowed to take coffee or tea into the living room, but not younger kids. This isn't "unfair" - it is making application of the principle based on each individual child's ability and track record.

Teaching and Building Trust

No matter how much you explain the concept of "fair" or your reasons for a particular decision, there will still be times when our kids disagree or can't see or understand all the factors we see in a given circumstance.

There may be times when you know about one child's personal struggle that isn't appropriate to share with a sibling, so that sibling just won't be able to consider all the reasons you are considering.

There may be other times when there isn't one "right" answer, but a decision just needs to be made, like who gets to ride with Dad to the bank or eat the last cupcake.

It is important to be ready to hear your children's concerns, especially if they have new information to offer. But it is also important to teach them to trust you and to work hard to build that trust.

Ask yourself these questions:

  1. Can my children trust that I want what is best for them?
  2. Do my children have regular evidence of my care for them?
  3. Do my children see that I love to meet not only their needs, but their wants as I'm able?
  4. Do my children have evidence of my effort to settle disputes carefully and wisely?
  5. Do my children know that I will listen graciously when they express concerns about my decisions?

If there are specific ways in which you've fallen short in one or more of these areas, confess it to your children and ask for their forgiveness. Let them know you see the difference between the approach you want to use and the ways you've failed to do that.

Then, in humility, as an imperfect parent striving to build and maintain trust, when you've come to the end of what you can explain about a decision, you can say,

"I'm sorry this didn't work out the way you want. I hope you know that I love you very much and I want good things for you. Please trust me with this decision."

Do your kids say, "That's not fair!"? How do you respond? How have you talked about this as a family?

  • Bobbie Dull says:

    I appreciate these words… as they are ones I’ve been searching for to use with my kids… “”Fair” means that parents will use their best judgement to give each child what is best for her in each specific situation.” Thank you for this great article and perspective!

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    Lynna Sutherland is the mother of eight kids ages teen to toddler. She hosts the Sibling Relationship Lab podcast and writes about sibling conflict resolution and sibling relationship building. Lynna believes that the gospel transforms sibling conflict from an obstacle to an opportunity and loves to show other parents the freedom and confidence of gospel-centered parenting.