As we are thinking this week about being fair to all of our children, let’s first recognize that being fair is an illusion.  Rather, we need to be just and that trait requires responding differently to each of our children’s unique needs.

Fairness is Not the Goal

We have to accept that being fair in the sense of treating everyone exactly the same is not a good goal.  In our justice system, for example, we know that a $500 fine will impact a rich person much less than someone making only minimum wage.  The penalty may be exactly the same, but it is not necessarily just in both cases.

In the same way, treating kids exactly the same at all times is not fair.  Different kids need different things at different times.  A child who has had a bad day at school may need a one-on-one trip to the ice cream store.  Promising the kids who are left behind their own trip for ice cream will be exhausting and financially irresponsible.  Just because one child needs a nice gesture on that particular day doesn’t mean that all of the other children get the same gesture on demand.  They each will have their day when they need something extra from you, and it won’t hurt them to learn to wait and empathize with their sibling until then.

We do have to avoid the trap of spending all of our time on the child with the most needs.  It is all too easy to overlook children who go along quietly and don’t demand anything from us.  They will have bad days, too, but we may not know about it.  We need to learn how to pay attention to them, ask without prying, and be intentional about spending time with them.  Every child will need something different from us on different days; we need to recognize that treating them differently often is the most fair thing to do.

Respond to Different Needs

Finally, we have to be willing to respond to whatever needs a child has.  Yet, we need to give them consistent structure and expectations.  The best balance I have found is to keep the rules the same for all of the children, but adjust the consequences to each child and situation.  My sister has always said, for example, that the worse consequence she could impose on her oldest child was to restrict his reading. Her youngest son, by contrast, didn’t care about reading, but really hated having his electronics restricted.  For her children, having the same consequences for every child would have been unfair and counterproductive.

In the same way, we may sometimes need to delay or switch consequences for a child.  We all recognize that a child with a sprained ankle needs a pass on taking out the trash.  In the same way, a child suffering a mental health injury or facing a looming project deadline may need a break from a particular chore or particular consequence.  That fact doesn’t mean that they need to completely ignore their responsibility.  You can find something else or switch chores or a different consequence.  My rule for older children, for example, was that if they needed a break from a chore because of an extracurricular activity, they still were responsible for getting it done.  They could negotiate with a sibling to exchange chores or they could ask me for help.  It helped teach them that the trash still needed to be taken out, no matter how badly our days were going, but that we were a team who needed to help each other.

At the end of the day, exact fairness is rarely just.  We may not be able to explain that complicated concept to our children, but we do need to demonstrate it.  “It’s not fair” should cause us to pause and think, but it is not a good goal for our families.  Fair play, consistency, and meeting each other’s needs almost always will require different rules for different needs and different situations.

Now that we've discussed what to say to ourselves, in next week's posts, we'll consider what to say to our kids.  In the meantime, check out my new book, Raising Other People's Children: What Foster Parenting Taught Me About Bringing Together a Blended Family.

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Debbie Ausburn

I make my living as a lawyer, but what I do is take care of other people’s children.