One of the most common complaints our kids throw at us, and one of the hardest to handle, is “it’s not fair.” Children often see us as treating another child as “the favorite.” Even biological children will accuse us of treating one of their siblings as “the family golden child.” It’s a much more common problem, and a much stronger complaint, though, with stepchildren and foster children. We do have a tendency to have a stronger connection with our biological children. Some theories even hold that favoring biological ties is part of our evolutionary hard-wiring. Whatever its source, our kids subconsciously know that tendency and look for it, while we know it and try to work against it.
Because we know we have to be careful about favoritism, it's instinctive to respond to “it’s not fair” either by completely denying the claim or rushing to make up the difference. Neither extreme is the best response. Next week, I’ll discuss how to respond to our kids when they complain about being treated unfairly. In my posts this week, however, I want to explore how we should think about it.
Be Open to Change
First, we need to take a moment to consider whether we in fact are favoring one child over another. 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 and trends that no one else sees, and we should pay attention to that information.
Also, the dividing line may not be between biological and non-biological children. We may be favoring a better-behaved child, or one with similar interests. I’ve never had biological children, but that fact didn’t insulate me from charges of favoritism. One of my foster children once complained that I liked my nieces and nephews more than her, and that I obviously thought they were “perfect.” She was factually wrong, but I knew I couldn’t challenge her reality. After talking more to her and thinking about it, I realized that she was responding to my stories of travels and past history with those kids. I didn’t spend enough time with them to actually treat them better, but my stories that did not include her made her feel left out and unappreciated.
What we intend and what our children perceive often are two very different things. The fact that we don’t feel any favoritism will not stop our children from seeing it. We need to be open to changing either our attitude or what we demonstrate to our kids.
Our Children Are Not the Final Judges
On the other hand, children cannot be the absolute judges of what’s fair and just. They do not have enough life experience to evaluate family dynamics. Adults are in charge of families for a reason. It is our job to decide on family rules, and we cannot outsource that responsibility to anyone else. So we should consider our children’s perspectives, but we shouldn’t default to letting them decide what’s fair and what is not.
“It’s not fair” also can be code for “I want that, too” or “I don’t like that rule.” In those cases, you never can be fair enough to satisfy your kids. Setting rules that make them happy will just turn into a tyranny of the uninformed, and having that much responsibility will make them unhappy people anyway.
So, examine yourself and be willing to improve either your attitude or your communications. But be ready to make a decision that doesn’t make your children happy if it’s the decision they need.
Come back Thursday for part two, and check out my new book, Raising Other People's Children: What Foster Parenting Taught Me About Bringing Together a Blended Family.