• Dr. Luisa Bryce

"But Mom, it's not fair!" 3 easy solutions for resolving sibling inequality


I grew up as the oldest of three girls. My sisters and I are fairly close in age; I’m two years older than my middle sister and five years older than my youngest sister. I’d say we generally got along pretty well while growing up, but as is common with siblings, we also had our fair share of squabbles. I remember many of our fights centered around the themes of fairness and equality. In fact, if my parents had a dollar for every time one of us said in a whiny voice, “But it’s not fair!” they’d be retired by now. As the oldest sibling, I often felt frustrated by the antics my younger sisters got away with, whereas I so much said “oh my God” instead of “oh my gosh” and was instantly slapped with a consequence. On the flip side, many a times my sisters have told me how they felt jealous I always got to do every thing first: first to have my own room, first to go to school, and first to have a sleepover. Not to mention that as the oldest, I was awarded most of the new clothes and never had to wear hand-me-downs.


As adults, we know that life simply isn’t fair. Most of us have accepted this truth and are able to live productively despite the inequality in the world. But how do we help our children grow to accept this? Here are a few tips to decrease the “But Mom, it’s not fair!” statements in your life:


1. SPRINKLE IN SOME VALIDATION

As a kid, nothing irritated me more than adults who responded to me saying “But it’s not fair” with “Life’s not fair. Deal with it.” Young children are told life isn’t fair all the time, but not until they reach the age of double digits can they truly begin to grasp this intangible concept. That doesn’t mean you can’t start instilling this harsh truth early on in your kiddo’s life, but pair it with some validation so your child feels understood. Validating your child’s feelings creates external recognition for your child that his feelings are real, important, and accurate, which boosts self-confidence and can lessen the impact of difficult truths. For example, if your son is complaining “it’s not fair” that his older sister has a later bedtime, say something such as, “You’re right son. It doesn’t seem fair your sister gets to stay up. I bet you’re feeling disappointed you have to go to bed right now. But sometimes life isn’t fair and it’s important that you get enough sleep.” Likely your son will still be upset, but validation can help soften the blow of inequality.


2. SEPARATE IS NOT EQUAL, AND THAT’S OK

Children of different ages should have different privileges and responsibilities. Not only does this help to establish age-appropriate expectations, but it encourages independence and maturity as your children develop. If your 12-year-old has the same responsibilities and privileges as your 7-year-old, where’s the incentive to grow up? Try to keep the privileges and responsibilities consistent throughout your children’s upbringing. For example, if your oldest child first had her own cellphone at age 11, your younger child will also have this same privilege when she turns 11, or if the oldest is expected to take out the trash at age 8, your younger child will also have the same responsibility when he is 8.


3. AVOID TAKING RESPONSIBILITY FOR YOUR CHILD’S PROBLEMS

When appropriate, siblings can benefit from taking control of their own problems. For example, if your younger daughter is complaining that “it’s not fair” her older brother gets to go to the park without an adult, validate her feelings and put the problem back on her. Say something like, “I know you’re feeling angry your brother gets to go to the park alone. It doesn’t seem fair you don’t have the same privilege, but those are the rules. What are you going to do about it? If you can’t change the rules, how can you still have fun?” Your daughter may chose to sulk, or perhaps she’ll decide to play in the backyard instead, but either way, the problem’s on her and she’s responsible for coping with perceived inequality, which takes the blame off you.


How do you respond when your child says, “It’s not fair!”? Share your wisdom with other parents by leaving a comment.

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