The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO


March 13, 2014

Sarah Coyne: Kids need to learn to accept unfairness

JOPLIN, Mo. — All was going well until my daughter had to stay in while her friends played outside.

"Sorry, sweetie," I said. "But you have to finish getting your laundry put away before anything else."

"But they might be done playing by the time I finish!" she said, whining. "It's not fair!"

It's when they complain about unfairness that I want to shout at the top of my lungs. I want to go on a rampage.

"Fair?!" I want to say. "Do you think it's fair that I should do a hundred chores per day that you never even notice? Do you think it's fair that there are starving kids across this very city, and you throw away food? Do you think it's fair when good people have horrible accidents or diseases? Life is not fair!"

Then I shake myself out of the dramatics and back into the moment. Because while informing our kids that life is simply and uniformly unfair might feel cathartic every now and then, it doesn't actually help them deal with their feelings. They need time and understanding, not shaming.

If you're anything like me and have a hard time finding empathetic reactions to petty claims of unfairness, here are some steps to remember the next time you need to address the complaint.

Embrace the emotion: First, as always, accept their emotions as truth. When your child says something isn't fair, don't try to tell her all the ways that it is fair.

Instead, be a mirror. Your response might sound something like this: "Sounds like you're really upset. It's frustrating when you think you're being left out." Because you also want to teach her that feelings are valid while behavior must be appropriate, keep going. "I'll be happy to brainstorm ways to solve this problem as soon as you can speak without yelling or whining."

Address the need: Many times our children's whining about unfairness comes as a result of comparing themselves to others. Like at lunchtime, when one sibling has a bigger pile of strawberries.

Instead of jumping all over the complainer, keep it simple: Focus on highlighting an easily modified situation, rather than trying to make things fair. You might say, "Oh, did you want a few more strawberries? All you have to do is ask." This reminds our kids that fairness is not our highest goal -- it's really about making sure everybody has what they need.

Let the discomfort ride: While it can be difficult to sit back and watch as our kids absorb disappointments, it's not all bad. When they aren't paired up with their best friend for a project, it feels unfair. When they don't get to go on a school trip, it feels unfair. When they can't have a $100 pair of shoes, it feels unfair.

There's no need to remind them in these instances that life isn't fair. They are already getting that message loud and clear. Small tragedies give way to life lessons that will help them adjust to each new hardship in a healthy and proactive way.

If we parents can sit with them in their discomfort, we have the opportunity to show them how to work through it without bitterness or resentment. We have the chance to teach them that life isn't about comparing fairness -- it's about problem solving, acceptance and compassion.

Sarah Coyne lives in Joplin. She writes about life and motherhood at her personal blog,

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