Living with Children: ‘Equal’ vs. ‘fair’


QUESTION: How can I explain to my kids, ages 6 and 9, that “fair” and “equally” are not the same. They complain constantly that I’m not fair. What they mean is I don’t treat them the same.

ANSWER: You’re yelling into a hurricane. Forget it. Below age twelve or thirteen, children cannot wrap their brains around the difference between these two concepts.

Treating children equally means treating them in the same fashion regardless of any measurable differences between them. Treating children fairly means treating them with consideration of those differences.

Take bedtime as regards two siblings, ages 5 and 10. To treat them equally, one would send them to bed at the same time. To treat them fairly, one would let the older one stay up later. Obviously, the younger one wants to be treated equally, while the older one wants to be treated fairly.

The concept of meritocracy is germane to this discussion. Meritocracy means that privilege is conferred objectively. In the previous case, the objective measure is age, but it could also be talent, effort, or expertise.

Children do not believe in meritocracy. A child believes — and the younger the child, the stronger the belief — in the “Me-tocracy.” To Ritchie, it is of no consequence that Frankie runs faster and therefore reached the ball first. Ritchie thinks it’s not fair that Frankie has the ball.

But then Frankie thinks it’s unfair that because Ritchie made straight A’s through the entire school year, his parents are taking him to Dizzy World. Frankie slacked off during much of the school year. No Dizzy World for him.

Unfortunately, many adults these days seem as confused as children by the difference between fair and equal. That confusion is reflected in the nouveau practice of giving every child on a team an award.

“And the Most Well-Oiled Glove Award goes to Billy Bratnslob! Let’s give him a big hand! Good job, Billy!”

Let’s not admit, much less let on to the kids, that one child on the team might be the best player. The problem is that the attempt to treat all children in a certain group equally isn’t fair at all.

In this case, fair would be for adults to recognize that some children on the team did, in fact, make a greater contribution than others. But in these odd times, it is widely held that telling a child the truth might dim the glow of his or her supposed entitlement to self-esteem, and entitlement wins.

I am reminded of a story about a family Christmas attended by six grandchildren. Grandma and Grandpa gave the same toy bulldozer to each of the four male grandchildren. They did this, they said, to be “fair.” (Note the confusion of terms.)

Nevertheless, within one hour of opening their identical presents wrapped identically, the boys were fighting over who got the best of the six identical bulldozers and whose identical bulldozer was whose and so on.

Good intentions don’t mean a thing to young children.

[Family psychologist John Rosemond:, Copyright 2022, John K. Rosemond]