Equity and Fairness

Children are passionate about having things "fair", yet trying to be fair to several children at the same time can raise sticky issues about equity, as well as old feelings about all the times in their lives that haven't been fair.

It was holiday time with the cousins. The five oldest, ages eleven to fifteen, were used to hanging out as a pack and had become increasingly interested in seeing how late they could stay up. This was the final evening together, but our family had to get up before dawn the next morning and my eleven year old had a long day after that. The parents had decided to hold firm against an all-nighter so that the younger ones (and we!) could function the next day.

At 12:30 I announced firmly that it was bedtime. My fourteen year old asked, rather plaintively, if he couldn't spend a little more time with his fifteen-year-old cousin. I was torn. I knew how much he treasured that time and how little of it he had gotten. Yet I also knew that if I agreed, the younger ones would clamor for equal treatment, and I would be faced with a battle, tears, and hard feelings--all time consuming and eating away at our precious few hours of sleep. On the other hand, if I was swayed by the younger ones’ demand for equal treatment and ignored the need for sleep, my older son still wouldn't get that special hang-out time with his cousin that he was looking for.

So I said no. Everybody had to go to bed. But I knew it wasn't right. My older son would be able to manage on a short night. He deserved some special time with his cousin. Yet here he was being sacrificed to some abstract concept of equity. It wasn't fair.

So, after they’d gotten settled and the younger ones had already conked out, I went to find the older two and suggested that if they could be quiet and discreet, it was fine with me if they stayed up. Needless to say, they were thrilled, and I was thankful to finally be able to go to sleep myself.

Part of me was surprised with myself—maybe even a little shocked. Not only was I discriminating among the children and practicing deception, I was doing it blatantly, in front of my eldest son. What kind of a role-model was that? But the bigger part of me was relieved to have achieved a goal that worked well for everyone.

It got me thinking about the conflict between equity and fairness, particularly among older and younger children. Since we can’t treat them exactly the same, feelings about fairness are bound to arise. It can work both ways. The younger ones can be outraged that they don’t get the same perks as the older ones, even though they are just as human and want it just as much. The older ones can feed deeply mistreated when they’re called on to “be more mature” in the face of younger sibling demands, like being asked to give up a toy that a younger child is screaming for. Yet a “one size fits all” rule isn’t fair either, and the attempt to make rules based on age (you gain the privilege of “x” when you reach the age of “y”) doesn’t take into consideration children’s widely differing needs and capabilities.

To make it even more challenging, the concept of “fairness” is a pretty loaded one for young people. So many things just aren’t fair that any time the issue comes up that whole load of emotional history can be part of their response. I don’t think we’re going to find any tidy solutions—philosophically, structurally, or emotionally. I think our best hope lies in knowing our children well, remembering that they deserve responses that acknowledge both their desires and their capabilities, and communicating our best thinking about each situation to them as clearly as we can.

I chose this time for a solution that sidestepped conflict. But if conditions had been different, openly sending the older ones off for some special time and expecting the younger ones to go to bed could have accomplished even more. I would have been faced with a ton of upset for sure. I would have needed to listen lovingly, long and hard—and they would have felt some relief in the end. When such limits elicit tears and tantrums it doesn’t mean that we’ve failed. It just means that we’ve triggered all the upset they’ve stored up about living in a world that’s not fair.