How To Treat Your Different Children Fairly

“It’s not fair!” is one of the most common outcries of children in every age bracket.

Children will invoke the perceived power of the ‘fairness doctrine’ at any opportunity that does not turn out to their liking. Oftentimes they will succeed in intimidating their parents to change their minds by demonstrating the lack of fairness that was inadvertently displayed.

“Why is it always my job to do this?” or “How come you always punish me and he gets away with it?” And, “She got the better/bigger one!” are oft-heard proclamations of children self-interpreting the ‘fairness doctrine’.

The question arises; shouldn’t parents treat all their children equally? Is it not appropriate to dole out equal amounts of love, attention, and gifts to every sibling in the family?

Naturally, parents should do their best to treat their children in a fair manner. However, here is the key: Fairness does not necessarily mean equality. Being fair is not synonymous with treating every child in an identical way. Children and parents alike will do well to internalize this lesson.

In a school setting, fairness is defined by equality, where each student receives equal privileges and opportunities.

In a family setting, however, it is neither realistic nor advisable to treat all children identically. One child has certain needs or abilities that the other lacks. One sibling is older and the other is younger.

Parents want to focus on giving equal consideration to each child; however that does not translate into equal treatment. Whenever measurably possible, goodies should be doled out with equality, to avoid the ‘His piece of cake is bigger than mine!’ syndrome.

Some children must go to bed earlier than others, due to their schedule or personal sleeping needs. One sibling may require tutoring, extra-curricular activities, or more motivation than his sister or brother.

Whenever equal treatment is not possible or sensible, the children’s appeal of the ‘fairness doctrine’ should not prevent parents from doing whatever must be done. Explanations that expound upon why the unequal treatment is truthfully impartial will go a long way to ease children’s minds.

The fact that each sibling has unique needs that may require different treatment can be a challenging concept for children to grasp. Therefore, it is wise to repeat and reinforce the message that while differences may appear unfair, they are necessary and unbiased.

Remember that the constitutionality of the ‘fairness doctrine’ must be interpreted by parents, not by children!

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  1. Christy says:

    My younger son always wants what his big brother has and will push and hit when he doesn’t get his way. I feel bad that I’m always reprimanding him but 9 out of 10 times HE is the one that instigates. However, I do make sure that they both get equal turns. But then I think that sometimes the younger one just has to deal with not getting his way.

  2. Hi Christy,

    I see from your post in the Parenting FAQ’s section that your boys are 7-1/2 and 4. (Assuming you are the same Christy, lol!) Sometimes a 4-year-old cannot have what a 7-year-old has, such as schoolbooks etc.

    What has worked for us is a large plastic set of drawers (from Target) that is labeled with each child’s name on one drawer. Each boy can be instructed to place their personal stuff into the drawer, and the rule is that nobody can open/touch the things in their siblings drawer.

    On the other hand, if your 7-year-old really does have more possessions (which is very likely!) you should stock up on some 4-year-old-appropriate things that are similar (books, toys, etc) and keep them hidden until a moment of jelousy arises.

    A chart addressing this particular issue, with the promise of ice-cream at the end of the day, can do wonders for children of this age. At one point I gave ice-cream as dessert for breakfast to my 3 and 4-year-olds if they did not come out of bed after bedtime! You can read about the motivational chart I used to get ideas.

  3. Hi Christy,

    I’m a 36 year old Mother of 3. We adopted our little boy a year and a half ago, and my 7 year old boy and my 10 year old girl ADORE him. I am seeing some real insecurity, though, in my 7 year old boy, and I’m trying to be present and patient and give extra time and attention to my older two. The older two get a date with me and my husband seperately once a month, and this has helped. Any other ideas to keep the new middle child feeling secure about his place in the world? Thanks!

  4. I don’t have much of a problem with this.. more of phases really.

    The baby (18 months) is currently having such a phase and every single thing any of the others pick up she wants… often resorting to hitting the next oldest (3) until one of them gives in. I move her away repeatedly but she doesn’t care and goes straight back to torment her sister.. They will sort it out themselves as they grow older.

    noone seems to mind when anyone else is being hugged.. and I have enough arms to hug 2 at once so if someone does object they can be accomodated.. apart from the above mentioned 2 who slap each other on my lap lol.

    We end up tickling and having stories and anything to distract the behaviour.

    If things get bad with the older ones.. I have a water pistol and I *shoot* them.. it is harmless and fun and usually makes them laugh and forget their argument.. it is my number 1 discipline measure.. and probably my most effective!

  5. Hi ladies,

    I am going through the “that’s not fair” stage with my 6 and 3 year old. Of course I feel the mommy guilt but they are so different. My son is very independent and does what he is told but he does have difficulties controling his actions. My daughter on the other hand complains about lots like if we ask her to clean up her room or do her homework she whines and cries, I don’t want to give into her but it seems like it is a cry for attention. Any advise? I hate the Mommy guilt of maybe I am not paying enough attention to her…UGH.

  6. Helen I love the water pistol idea, especially with the silly fights. Do you find them spraying you if you and your husband are having a heated discussion? That would be great to try I think I will start that.


  7. Your blog is interesting!

    Keep up the good work!

  8. Hi,
    Talks about fairness are important. As a mother of two i know how importance fairness for a healthy family. Now aged 33 I am looking back on my childhood & have feelings of resentment towards my parents, these feelings stem, I think from the the way in which my parents treated my brother & I.
    My older brother went to an (expensive) private school, but I didn’t have that opportunity. Probably due to financial constraints. When he got his first car I remember being told I would get one too when I was 17 because that was fair, but it didn’t happen for me.

    i believe that my brother & i were treated differently when we were growing up & as a consequence I am finding it difficult to trust their ability to treat us equitably now. Moving forward in a positive way is hard for me as my parents still treat my brother & I in a way that I see as unfair.

    Do you think i should seek an explaination from my parents, should i tell them I feel hurt & confused?

    Maybe not all parents think it is important to treat their children fairly, Thanks Becca

  9. I would like to know if it is equitable to give the oldest child a big ticket item for improving her grades, while two younger children get nothing and maintain excellent grades. I have a big problem with this, but as grandmother have held my tongue.