The idea behind fairness is an important one: to be fair is to be free from bias. In families that means not showing favour for one child over another. It has come to symbolize love. And parents don’t want any of their children to feel they are less loved than their sibling(s).
But how do you measure “fair”?
Most conventional families measure it based on quantity. They strive for equality: they give all their children the same number of gifts for holidays; or spend the same amount of money on each for their birthdays; or sign them up for the same number of recreational activities.
Is that fair? It certainly looks so from the parents’ point-of-view: “Look, the numbers prove it!” And over time, the kids hear the message loud and clear and start to view their lives through the same filter—everything is weighed and measured. “Hey, his bowl of ice cream is bigger than mine!” “Why can’t I go out with my friends? She went last night!” Parents can cling to this equality justification, but the score-keeping gets wearying. In the end, it doesn’t really seem like a helpful measure of love, does it?
So how else might we look at things?
Unschooling families are more apt to observe and evaluate situations from the child’s perspective. Sure, both kids got a pair of skates, but did they both want a pair of skates? As parents move to unschooling they begin to see fairness not as a quantitative measure of what the parents give, but as a qualitative measure of the value each child receives. They no longer ask themselves, “Do I think my children should feel loved and secure?” They ask, “Do they feel loved and secure?”
Equality in what you give each child isn’t a helpful measure of fairness or love because what each child needs from you is likely different. One child may need more of your time, wanting a lot of personal interaction. Another might have an active outside interest that needs more of the family’s money to support it. Still another might need more of your active participation, joining them as they pursue their interests. You may be giving each of your children very different things that take varying amounts of time and effort and money. But when their needs are met, they each feel content, secure, and happy: equally loved.
Yet no matter how hard you try, there may be real reasons why things feel unfair to a child in the moment. Maybe one child gets sick or injured and needs more attention for a while. Maybe there’s a busy season with one child’s activity. Siblings can understand the need, but still feel things are unfair in the moment. Those are really good moments to talk with your child about the situation. Or better yet, just focus on listening. Hear their perspective and acknowledge it. Be compassionate. If it seems appropriate, share your perspective—though not with an eye to convince them to change their feelings. Maybe it is unfair right now. You’re learning more about each other. About life. That’s why I don’t see eye-to-eye with those who feel parents shouldn’t help their children as much as possible because kids need to learn that “life isn’t fair”. There will be enough real moments when life feels unfair—we don’t need to manufacture them.
An interesting outcome I’ve observed is that when each child feels like their needs are being met and life feels fair, they feel less competitive with their siblings. There’s minimal push and pull and struggle for attention or power. That’s because they come to measure their happiness based on their own needs being met, not constantly looking to those around them for validation of their own worth.
If their sibling gets a *insert fun thing* and is really happy? They don’t feel spiteful; they don’t demand they get one too just to be fair. That’s not to say they might not try it out and like it and ask for one too because they feel they would enjoy it. If so, when they get it they’ll most likely use it and learn and expand their world. But if they want it just because their sibling has it, once they get it, their mission is accomplished and there’s no need to actually use it—it just sits on the shelf. What a different mindset!
Instead of learning to measure fairness through numbers, they learn to see and consider the real people behind the numbers. They learn people have different needs, and that it’s meeting those needs that is important, not necessarily how those needs are met. As they extend this understanding beyond their family, their friends feel better understood and supported. That’s much better information to bring into adulthood than a penchant for tit for tat comparisons.
Value and love in a family isn’t best measured by everything being equal. It’s better to look to your children and see if they feel like a valued and cared for member of the family. If not, start there.