Last week, we discussed what we should tell ourselves when our kids claim we are being unfair. So this week, let's talk about what we say to our kids. Responding to "it's not fair" is particularly difficult when we are trying to blend step-siblings or transition a foster child into our home. The non-biological children are extremely sensitive to favoritism, and often see it when we don’t think it exists. They also tend to interpret any different treatment as unfairly letting someone else get away with breaking the rules. As with most parenting challenges, there are few hard and fast rules about how to respond, but there are some important principles that can guide us.
Acknowledge and Listen
One instinctive response is to just tell our kids that life isn’t fair and they need to get used to that fact. Of course life is not fair, but the saying is a prime example of a true statement that is not helpful. Your kids will have no idea what you mean, and you might as well be speaking a foreign language. Any truism will make the kids feel that you do not care about what they think and are just ignoring their opinion.
Instead, acknowledge their feelings and ask for their perspective. As I mentioned last week, we always need to be open to feedback, even if our kids are being snarky and immature in giving it to us. They will notice habits that no one else sees, and we should pay attention to them. Even more important, they need to believe that we listen to them. Even if we do not agree in the end, they still need to be heard.
Once we’ve started a discussion with our children about the rules, it’s very easy to fall into the trap of trying to get them to agree with us. Don’t. Our children rarely have enough life experience or maturity to understand our perspective, and they rarely are going to agree with you, anyway. I used to go down this road because, as a left-brained lawyer, I tend to think that brilliant logic (mine, of course) can win the day. Emotions, however, are not susceptible to logic, and at best you are just wasting your time. At worst, they are hearing something entirely different than what you think you are saying. So spend some time explaining, but keep it short and simple.
Also know that sometimes the explanation is one that your child simply won’t accept. Younger children, for example, really don’t like hearing that older siblings get more screen time or a later bedtime because they are older. That is a valid difference, however, and one that you do not need to spend a lot of time explaining.
Explain the Concept of Different Needs at Different Times
When you do explain, concentrate on the theme that the goal is not to be exactly even, but helping different people with different challenges. For example, children can understand the analogy that a sibling with a broken ankle needs a crutch and a different chore than taking out the trash. You can go from there to explaining how a child who has suffered trauma has invisible injuries that you have to take into account. Your children may not like that explanation, but they can understand it.
In your discussion, try to keep away from anything that sounds like rewarding neediness. We don’t want to encourage our children to explore their victimhood in order to avoid unpleasant chores or get benefits. Try to find and explain some other way that the other child is contributing to the family team, such as doing another chore or having to double up later.
One contentious area that is hard for children to understand is cell phones. When a foster child moves in, for example, their cell phone may be the only tie they have to family and friends from their old life. Having to move to a new place with new people already is traumatic; losing their only communications with their old life may just compound that trauma. All of that is very complicated for a resident child who doesn’t have the same privileges. Don’t let that child’s complaints stop you, if you think the new child needs some time to adjust to the house rules. It is our job to respond to each child’s needs, whether other children can understand it or not.
We don’t need to exhaust ourselves trying to treat all of our children exactly the same. In fact, doing that will just give them a false view of how the world works. They need to learn how to adapt to not getting the same thing as everyone else all the time. They need to learn that justice is different from exacting fairness, and that different needs require different responses. We can explain that to our children and model justice as best we can. Check back on Thursday for my next post, where I'll discuss the most important, and foundational principle, of letting our children know that we care about and accept them just as they are.