Teachable Moment: When Your Kids Say “It’s Not Fair”

I’m really terrible about cleaning up the table after a meal. Plates and cups usually sit there until the next meal, when I clean everything up in order to put the next set of plates and cups down.

Last week we were out all day, so when we came home for dinner, everything was still on the table from breakfast. Kenna sat down in her seat before dinner was ready and went to drink the water that had been there since breakfast.

Without giving it adequate thought I said, “Wait! Let me get you some ‘fresh’ water.”

Big mistake.

The next day, I handed Kenna her water bottle after it had sat out for about an hour. She started walking to the kitchen.

“Mommy, I’m going to dump this out so I can get FRESH water.”

Regret ran a mile deep at that moment, realizing I had inadvertently entered the notion in her head that she was entitled to waste water that wasn’t freshly poured. I told her not to dump it. A meltdown ensued.

“MOMMY! That’s not FAIR! It’s not FAIR that I don’t have fresh water!” 

It was the first time the “it’s not fair” complaint has been filed in my home. I thought that would be reserved for the teen years. Alas, I launched into an unprepared explanation of how life isn’t fair, how millions of people don’t have ANY water…blah, blah, blah (you can guess the rest of the speech).

She looked at me like the proverbial deer in the headlight and I stopped my rant.

I walked her over to my computer and googled, “unclean water.” I found this picture of a man from Eritrea (an east African country bordering Ethiopia). Both Nathan and Kenna were absolutely enthralled by it.

The questions started flowing:

Mommy, who is that? What is he wearing? What is that water behind him? Why does he look sad? Is there dirt in the water? Will he drink the water? What is that wall?

I explained to them that this man was from a country called Eritrea and showed them where it is on a big world map we have. We discussed what a desert is and how it means there isn’t enough clean water for everyone to drink in countries like Eritrea. I told them that this man probably has to drink water that looks like the pool behind him, and asked if that looks like their water. They were as quiet and pensive as 3-year-olds can be. And then came my moment.

“Do you think it’s FAIR that you have clean water while this man, and many others, do not? Do you deserve to drink clean water more than him?”

They said no and got very quiet.

“Unfortunately the whole world is very unfair. God wants those who love Him, like our family, to help people who are sad like this man. We need to spend our time helping others and thanking God for the things we do have…like clean water. I want you to think of him before you dump water out to help you remember to be grateful.”

We talked about how we can help him (praying and donating money) and then continued our day.

I wouldn’t have known how impactful this moment was if they hadn’t asked questions about “the man from Eritrea” almost daily since then. The image of the man and the dirty water made it possible for me to show them something they otherwise could not comprehend from my words alone.

We have an amazing opportunity through the internet to find pictures from people and places all over the world. When your child claims, “it’s not fair,” there are literally millions of photo opportunities to talk about the things that are truly unfair in the world and our calling to help.

With no prompting at all from me, Kenna has started including this in her prayers: “…and please help the people from Eritrea to find food and water.” It brings tears to my eyes to even recount that. It represents the change and awareness that can come to a young heart from one simple yet powerful picture.

10 thoughts on “Teachable Moment: When Your Kids Say “It’s Not Fair””

  1. You inspire me to have teachable moments like this every day….”because I say so” is just not as good as your plan!

  2. Natasha, that was truly powerful. My 7-year-old daughter and I live in a southeast Asian country. Later this week, we are going to visit another city with some people who spend time helping others whose only home is under a bridge. It will certainly be be dirty and smelly. But my daughter has the rare opportunity to see what life is like first-hand for people who truly have very, very little. I hope her young heart will be touched as the hearts of your children were.

  3. Great post! Great because kids waste so much food and drinks. I have always felt guilty tossing things away and this is a great lesson for these types of situations.

  4. Most touching. Your “It’s Not Fair” title does not hint at what is to come. Thank you, Natasha.

  5. Wow, that’s good stuff! So glad I found your website! I’m a Christian child-psychologist blogger, and am really inspired by your blog to talk more about my faith in my blog. Thanks!

  6. Natasha, this is such an inspiring post about how to communicate things to our kids from a world perspective not just from our own selfish needs. I hate the “It’s not fair” comments too and have been challenged to make more effort to take the time to point out what not fair really means not just tell my kids wearily to quit saying that phrase. Thanks of sharing this great post again. Blessings.
    Mel from Essential Thing Devotions

  7. If you think about it, when kids are little (like when they are learning how to share and take turns), adults and older kids teach them that they have to be fair. And that fairness means everyone gets the exact same snack. Or the exact same number of turns on the monkey bars at recess. By the preteen or teen years, however, most people start to realize that not everything is fair all the time, and that the definition of fairness adults and older kids taught them when they were younger isn’t always correct. I have Asperger Syndrome (less severe Autism, my verbal communication and cognitive skills are within normal limits for someone my age), and even in high school, I still thought fairness meant treating everyone in the exact same way. That is, until I read somewhere that it doesn’t.

    I thought it wasn’t fair if my parents seemed to be letting my brother (2 years younger than me, and doesn’t have any disabilities) off easy for something that would have gotten me a good talking to when I was his age. That wasn’t because I felt like he needed to deserved stricter discipline, or because I didn’t feel like I needed or deserved the discipline I was getting. It was because it wasn’t exactly equal. I remembered how my parents had always said stuff like, “Leanne, it’s not fair that you get more cookies than he does.” As I mentioned, I am on the high end of the Autism Spectrum, and because of that, I understand things in a very concrete manner.

    Here are some ways you can explain fairness that might help people to better understand the difference between fair and equal:

    “Equal means everyone gets exactly 1 hour of screen time each day. Fair means nobody gets more than 1 hour of screen time, but it’s ok if some people want less than 1 hour.”

    “Fair means everyone is happy with the birthday presents they get. Equal means everyone gets the exact same number of presents on their birthday.”

    “Equal means rules AND consequences for breaking a rule are exactly the same for everyone. Fair means that rules are the same for everyone, but consequences for breaking a rule are different.”

    Here are some questions I would like everyone to ask themselves:

    Do I always count the birthday or holiday presents to make sure everyone receives the exact same number?

    Do I always cut the pizza, pie, cake, bread, brownies, so that each slice is the exact same size?

    Do I always make sure everyone has the same amount of jelly on their toast?

    Do I always make sure everyone has the exact same number of grapes in their bowl?

    Am I constantly keeping track of how much time and attention I give each child, in order to make sure everyone gets the exact same amount of attention?

    Am I constantly keeping track of how I discipline each child, how often I discipline each child, and for what reasons, in order to make sure everyone gets the exact same amount of discipline at the exact same age?

    Do I always give each student the exact same grade?

    If some people need certain accommodations, do I deny those people the accommodations they need (or conversely, do I give those accommodations even to the people who don’t need them), because it might seem unfair if some people recieve those accommodations, and others don’t?

    ****If I notice that someone has (or wants) something different, or a different amount of something than the others, do I always say stuff like, “Devon, it’s not fair that you get more cupcakes than the others?****

    If even one of these things (or a similar thing) sounds like something you do, you should know that you are implementing fairness at a 6-year-old level. You can try REALLY hard to make sure that everyone has the exact same snack, number of presents on their birthday, amount of jelly on their sandwich, discipline, attention, it is more than likely that at least one person will still see it as unequal or unfair. If you give each student the exact same grade, the students who worked harder might see it as unequal because they worked harder, yet they still received the exact same grade as their classmates who didn’t work as hard. If you give each student the grades they earn, the students who earned lower grades might see it as unfair because they didn’t get the higher grades, like some of their classmates. Younger children and babies usually need more attention than older children do. People with certain health conditions might require more attention than people who are otherwise healthy. People with certain special needs might require more attention than children who don’t have special needs (or whose special needs are less serious). If some people need certain accommodations, it is probably because that is what that person needs to feel successful. As the adult (or figure of authority) in the situation, you want as many people as possible to be successful. Right?

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