Written by Doctor G

Fair vs Equal

As the parent of five-month-old twins, I am beginning to struggle with issues of “fair vs. equal” as we tackle sleep training readiness.  On the one hand, I want to treat my two boys as individuals and foster a healthy sense of self by making decisions for each one according to his particular needs.  On the other hand, the idea of letting one cry it out while the other is co-sleeping with me is heartbreaking.  I’m sure this problem is just as relevant for siblings of different ages – how do we decide when equal treatment isn’t fair?

Latisha, in Springfield, MA

Karl Marx must have had really excellent parenting.  In his writings encouraging communist society he popularized the phrase “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”  Communism doesn’t seem to work too well for society, but this is a fundamental principle of parenting more than one child.

Latisha, this comes up for parents of siblings, every 3 minutes or so.  It is possible to hear the words (if you can call them words at this decibel) “It’s not FAAAAIIIIIRRRRRR!” in a one mile radius from my house at any time of day.

From the kid perspective, fair absolutely means equal.  There are things we can control: same size piece of cake, number of popcorn kernels, hours of TV, bedtime hour.  Things we can’t control but they think we can: sports ability, grades, amount of homework, height!  And a million other things they want to be exactly the same as a sibling (if what that kid has is better, but not if I got the corner piece of cake and he didn’t).

From the parent perspective, fair means unequal.  Fair means holding the infant but reading to the toddler.  Addition with the first grader but a tutor for middle school algebra.  Hosting the teen youth group event but sending the 4th grader to someone else’s house for a sleepover.

Lets imagine a family looking at the kids’ needs and interests and the bank account balance for the summer.  The decision is made to send the 6th grader to a vacation bible camp she really wants to attend, for a week, to strengthen her church friendships and give her the chance to connect to her religion in a fun way.  This means the 6 year old will not return to the day camp he went to last year.  Nevermind that he didn’t like that camp so much and the parents felt it wasn’t well supervised.  The kindergartener feels the situation is unfair because he has to stay home while his sister gets to go to camp.  And to top it off, the 6th grader announces the night before camp (in a fit of nerves) that clearly the parents love her brother more and that is why they are keeping him home and sending her away.  Ack!

Moral of the story?  Don’t get sucked in!  Fair does not mean equal.  Fair means understanding each of our children the best we can and giving them (to the best of our ability) what it seems they need.  Which is often completely distinct from what they want.

The best news for you is that your twins are too young to remember any of this.  The issue will persist, though, for all of your parenting years.  So take heart!

If you are looking for a better answer to the perennial childhood complaint “It’s not FAIR!” you don’t have to trot out the old standby “Life’s not fair.”  At our house we annoy our kids just as much with our answer.  “No, it’s not fair.  It’s love.”


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