Monday, June 6, 2011

Life Is Not Fair... But Parents Can Be

It's a phrase people use a lot. Life is not fair. And it's true. Nature doesn't do fair. Terrible diseases can dramatically reduce the chances for some people to enjoy life, and cause people to die young and tragically. Hurricanes and tsunamis and tornadoes strike with unforgiving intensity. Some people get much more than a fair share of nature's wrath, while others seem to skip through life unaffected.

What does this have to do with parenting?

Some parents love to fall back on the phrase Life Is Not Fair. It's the Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free-Card of parenting. It's a daily occurrence in some homes: Kid calls parent's (arbitrary) ruling unfair. Parent says Life Is Not Fair. Discussion over.

But does this make any sense? Does making arbitrary rules help a child prepare for the inevitable unfairness of nature? Is a 10:00 curfew unfair in the same way as a Category 5 hurricane, or a sudden strike by Cancer?

I think not. And I refuse to hand out arbitrary injustice to my children for the sake of teaching a lesson about life. Life can take care of its own lessons.

Life may not be fair, but people can be. Parents can be.

I want my children to grow up thinking that people can be fair and kind and wonderful. That I am fair and kind and wonderful. That they can be too. I would rather my kids start with this assumption, and be disappointed by those who contradict it, than start with the assumption that people are just unfair and we all have to accept that as part of life.

I'm not training my kids to chalk up unfairness caused by people to Life Isn't Fair. And before you ask about about my kids becoming too trusting or naive because of this, don't worry. There are lots of people out there who will teach my kids about unfairness. And I will be right alongside my kids as they learn about it. I will be there to defend justice for my kids, and to help them deal with injustice. I'm here to make sure my kids don't get used to unfairness, so they will not stop being appalled by it. Pointing it out. Questioning it.

Practically speaking, this doesn't mean I am weighing my kids' ice cream bowls to make sure they get the exact same amount (after all, there is always more ice cream to be had). But it does mean that if one of my kids tells me I am being unfair, I take it seriously. If there is anything I can do to be more fair, I will do it. We will figure it out together. Also, on those rare occasions when I can't possibly avoid being unfair, I will apologize to and sympathize with my child over it, rather than enjoy it.


I took a little inspiration from this article, in which the author writes:
“That’s not fair.” I can’t tell you what joy this phrase brings to my life. Because I hear it. Often. From my kids.
When they have to come in for dinner. When they can’t have a friend sleep over. When they have to stop their game to finish homework. When they have to make their bed (again) because it didn’t work the first time with the kicked-off sheet lying on the floor. When they don’t get their way. Then, life is not fair.
Do you feel like it's necessary to be unfair to your kids to teach them a lesson?


  1. You're really good at pointing out things that so many people do by habit and probably don't think very much about. My mum used to say, when I said something was unfair, that my will (as in free will) is sitting in the treetops. I never quite understood what she meant but she probably meant "life is unfair". But I took it as meaning that if I wanted to get my will back, I would have to work for it, which I did, I got really good a arguing my point and most times my mum would listen.
    It's funny though how people think that they are preparing their children for life when they treat them unfairly. And to spice things up, add a little randomness and inconsistency, so the child never knows what is okay and not okay to do.

  2. Treat everyone with politeness, even those who are rude to you - not because they are nice, but because you are. ~Author Unknown

    I have always liked this quote.... You could substitute the word fairness/ fair just as easily. :)

  3. @Brave New Life, Thanks. I hate autopilot. Doing things without thinking. Of course I do it sometimes too but I like to point out examples of it. I love this "add a little randomness and inconsistency, so the child never knows what is okay and not okay to do."

    @JenO, Nice quote. Thanks!

  4. I agree w this article; however, I feel compelled to also remark that it is important to also teach our kids that FAIR IS NOT ALWAYS EQUAL. what's important is that each of us gets what we need, which might or might not be the same!

  5. I think "life is not fair" is often just an easy way out. I don't think parents are teaching their kids life is unfair by being unfair I think they say that so they don't have to look at what they're doing, talking to their children about what is fair or explaining why they have decided to do/say what they have. "life is not fair" is possibly another way of saying "I'm the parent and therefore you do as I say with no questioning!". Now that is not fair!

    Great post - love it when something makes me think! And of course - you're right! :)

  6. I think when a parents falls back on "life's not fair" what they really mean is "I don't want to deal with this because you are insignificant and other things are competing for my attention," or because they have a general pattern of being disengaged from their child's life. This and "because I told you so" are some people's go-to parenting strategy. I recall being infuriated as a child because even back then, I recognized it as what it was: a cop out. And the last thing I want to do as a parent is cop out on my kids.

  7. @kck, I agree. Fair does not necessarily mean equal. Thanks for pointing it out.

    @Libby and Anon, Thank you! It does seem that "life is not fair" is a cop out, an excuse for not having any other explanation. It does nothing good for a relationship!