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It’s Not Fair!

Jody McVittie, MD

Today, on the anniversary of the Alabama church bombings, I’m reflecting on justice. As an adult sometimes I feel surrounded by injustice or things that just don’t seem right. On any given day it might be the inequities in our medical or education system, the devastating effects of climate change or ocean acidification, or the devastating impact of war on thousands of innocent human beings. It invites a sense of personal powerlessness or even hopelessness. I’m probably not alone.

I’m guessing that I’m probably also not the only parent that has heard the complaint “It’s not fair!” from one of my children and recognized that there was some truth in your child’s words. What do you say to a child who has an internal justice meter tightly woven just beneath the skin?

If you are like me, and feeling a tad overwhelmed myself, there is a part of you that wants to respond with something that either dismisses the child’s concern or verges on sarcasm. Things like:
– “Buddy you don’t know what fair is”, or
– “Life isn’t always fair (get used to it)” or
– “Fair doesn’t mean equal” or
– “I get to decide what is fair or not fair.”
After all, as a parent you have tried to be fair and you want to be appreciated for all your efforts. Sometimes, in fact, it is fair and your complainer seems to be forgetting all of the times when he or she had a slight advantage.

What do we really want long term? Isn’t our child’s internal fairness meter a good thing? Don’t we want our sons and daughters to look at the world and stand up for injustice, for things that aren’t fair? Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we had more people speaking up for fairness and justice for all?

What are some ways to honor and even strengthen that inborn sense of fairness and justice and still maintain your dignity and role as the leader of the family? Here are some of our favorite tools:

Connection first. “Hmm, when your brother has a friend over it feels unfair. Tell me more” Then listen. Your child’s feelings are real and benefit from being heard. It is not your job to fix them.

Be curious about the real issue. “I’m wondering if this gives you the idea that I might love him more than I love you.” (Be ready with a hug.)

Use curiosity questions to help your child see other perspectives. “What do you think you would feel if you had a friend over and he didn’t” “I wonder how often it is the person who is left out or gets less that notices the problem with fairness?” “Do you think there are other people in the world that might think that something is unfair and we don’t even notice?”

Allow feelings and invite solutions. “It is okay to feel disappointed that you don’t get what you want right now. Can you think of something you could do that would help you feel a bit better?” (Remember this is not about bargaining to make things “fair” but to support your child in finding another way to feel important and/or connected to the people he/she loves.)

Model standing up for fairness and justice. What can you or your family do to spread a little bit of fairness or justice in your community? Conspire together. Dream. And remember to start small.