What is “Fair” for Siblings?

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The whole “she got more than me” thing (and all the variations of it) can drive a parent mad. Throughout the course of a day, there are so many things shared — both emotionally and physically — it’s impossible to be fair all the time. I remember a much desired melting popsicle dripping down my arm, and the effort I put into splitting it so both of my boys would get their fair share. Enough already! What is fair? Does it mean equal? Is it important to teach kids how to cope with imbalance? Nancy Samalin restores parents’ sanity with information we all can share.

— Laurel Moglen, Web Managing Editor

An interview with Nancy Samalin, M.S.

Many parents believe that being fair means that everything should be equal. That is, if we treat siblings the same, they’ll stop arguing about who got more, who gets to go first, or who’s the favorite. But they won’t—probably not even when they get to be adults.

Fairness doesn’t mean equal or the same. Trying to treat children “equally” is a little like trying to get out of quicksand: the harder you try, the deeper you sink. What parents need to do is treat their children “uniquely.”

Your kids don’t really want to be treated the same, no matter how much they clamor for it. Treating children identically tends to backfire, because you end up depriving them of what they really want — which is to be valued for who they are. Kids need to be celebrated for their achievements. Their efforts need to be noticed and rewarded.

The message behind the fairness complaint is really this: “Am I special?” “Do you love me?” “Am I worthy of your attention?”

What can parents do when kids compare each other?

Sometimes parents can change the focus from a child’s comparison to his or her individual need. For example:

Matt: He got more cereal than me.

Mom: You sound like you’re really hungry.

Matt: I am!

Mom: Okay. Show me how much more you want.

Not all inequities are as easy to solve, of course. If there’s one piece of cake with a rose decoration and three kids want it, you can’t make everyone happy. But kids have to deal with the unavoidable lesson that life isn’t always fair. There’s nothing wrong with saying, “Next time, it will be your turn.”

To avoid fights over regular issues as who had what last and whose turn it is next, let your children work out a schedule: whose turn it is to use the red crayon or choose the TV show. Then keep track of it on a calendar. Another strategy is to ask your children for their suggestions as to how to problem-solve.

Parents should be sure to lavish praise on their children when they’re sharing well: “I love it when my boys are sharing their toys so nicely!”

What about “who do you love more?”

Few things push parents’ guilt button more than, “You love her more.” Complaints of favoritism can put you on the defensive, but remember: Your children do not need to be treated the same.

First off — there’s never one right answer because each child is different and responds differently to the tone parents use and the words parents say. So, parents need to do their best to understand their unique child (their age, personalities, abilities, and moods) when thinking about how to answer this question.

Here are some possibilities:

  • If your children are mature enough, with advanced senses of humor, try saying what one of my client’s once answered (to big laughter) “Oh my goodness, you both drive me crazy in equal proportions!” But caution here, because you never want a child to misunderstand you or the joke.
  • Another way to answer is to pause. There is a real possibility that if you don’t respond right away, your child might start talking, giving you clues about what prompted the question, or perhaps their own answer to the question.
  • You can also, repeat the question back to your child: “Who do I love the best? Who do you think? Do you have any idea? Did something happen for you to ask this question?” The child might give you an answer to help lead your answer.
  • Or, you could say, “Who do I love more? You see these fingers? I need all of them, all of them are special. Just like you and your brother/s/sister/s.”
  • Or, you could say, “You are two different people, so I can’t possibly love you the same.”
  • Or, “I love you for all of who you are, and I love her for all of who s/he is.”
  • You could also ask the child, “Do you love Mom and Dad the same?” Giving them a question to think about, can help start dialogue. Dialogue is always best.

Now, if you think your child is asking the question because s/he is hurting, then address the feeling first. For example you could ask, “Is that how you really feel? What do you think is making you feel that way?”

When kids get competitive in a hostile way, what’s the best way for parents to react?

In general, I think it’s best for parents to stay out of the conflict and let the kids work it out. But, we all know that’s not always possible — especially if things start escalating too much. To this end, you might want to say, “Do I have to separate you two? Or can you work it out?”

I think it’s also useful to say, “I will not let one child I love hurt another child I love.” This is better than saying, “Leave your baby brother alone!” In this way, parents take the blame out of the conflict, and focus on the end result that involves both (or more) kids.

Keep in mind, when you have two siblings not the same age, and they’re fighting, you’re not dealing with, for example, a six-year-old and a four-year-old. The older child will always sink to the level of the younger one. So, you’re dealing with two four-year-olds. It’s rarely the other way around, and parents should not expect the six-year-old to act more maturely in times of heightened emotion.

What’s the best way a parent can support a child when s/he feels they aren’t “as good” at something as their sibling — like drawing, or sports, or reading? 

When younger brother gets upset that big sister can kick the ball a lot farther than him, parents can say, “I know it’s frustrating he can kick the ball farther — but as you grow, you will get stronger and you’ll be able to kick the ball hard too.”

When someone you love is upset — speak to the heart first and head next. Empathize first. We want the child to feel understood. Avoid giving some kind of moral lesson — young kids won’t get it. Get in their shoes.

Nancy Samalin gives parenting talks and workshops throughout the country. She has written several books including Loving Each One Best: A Caring and Practical Approach to Raising Siblings.

The Mother Company aims to support parents and their children, providing thought-provoking web content and products based in social and emotional learning for children. Check out episodes of our “Ruby’s Studio” children’s video series,  along with our beautiful children’s booksappsmusichandmade dolls, and more.

Please share any thoughts or questions you might have below in the comments section.  We love hearing from you!

Posted in: Expert Advice, Family, Learn, Siblings

Comments (2)

  1. Leanne Strong


    I have something I want to add. If you have had enough of your kids saying stuff like, “that’s not fair,” and, “s/he got more than I did,” ask yourself these things (the questions with stars next to them are big ones):

    ***Am I always monitoring how fair my kids (or the kids I work with) are being?***

    ***If I notice that one of my kids (or the kids I work with) has something diffrent, or a different amount of something than the others, do I always say stuff like, “Alex, it’s not fair that you get more brownies than your siblings do?”

    Do I always keep track of how birthday presents I buy or make for each of my friends and family members, in order to make sure everyone gets the exact same number of presents on their birthday?

    Do I always cut each slice of pizza to make sure they are all the exact same size?

    Do I allow my child to do or have something just because all of his/her peers have it or are doing it?

    Do I carefully keep track of how much time and attention I give each child to make sure everyone gets the exact same amount of attention?

    Do I carefully monitor how often I discipline each child, how I do it, and what I do it for, in order to make sure everyone gets the exact same amount of discilpine at the exact same age?

    Do I give each student the exact same grade?

    If one kid needs certain accommodations, do I deny that child those accommodations (or do I choose the other extreme, and give those accommodations even to the children who don’t need them), because I don’t think it’s fair that some kids get those accommodations, and others don’t?

    If even one of these things sounds familiar, you are applying fairness at the level of a 6-year-old. There are 2 very important lessons that your children might not be learning when you do this. One of those lessons is that not everything is fair all the time. Sometimes 2 people are exposed to the same illness, but only 1 gets sick. Sometimes two people commit the same crime, but only one gets arrested (now, I’m not advocating criminal behavior, I actually think such behavior should be avoided at all costs). Another one of those lessons is that fairness doesn’t always mean treating everyone exactly the same. Babies and younger children usually require more attention than older children. Children with certain health problems or special needs might require more attention than children without. If you give each student the same grade, after a while, your students might start to think stuff like, “it doesn’t matter how hard I work on this assignment, I’m just going to get a bad grade anyway,” or, “I’m just going to get a good grade, no matter how hard I work on this project.” As you can see, it doesn’t motivate students to work harder. Spending even a few minutes in the bedroom might be too much for one child, but another child might not even care if s/he even has to spend a few days in the bedroom. Yes, a 10 year old and a 6 year old should be disciplined for some of the same things (like name calling, teasing, hitting, etc.), but they should not be disciplined in the same way. A ten year old knows more about what is and is not appropriate than a six year old.

  2. Leanne Strong

    You wouldn’t believe how many instances I have been in when I was a preteen and teen where I thought my parents were being unfair with my brother and me. I always thought they were letting him get away with stuff I couldn’t have gotten away with when I was his age (he’s only 2 years younger than me). Part of that is cuz I always remembered my parents saying things like, “It’s not fair to Ethan that you get 2 brownies and he doesn’t get any,” or, “it’s not fair to Leanne that you get a turn and she doesn’t.” I have a pragmatic language prob cuz of my Asperger Syndrome. I thought they meant “fair means everyone gets the same thing.” I didn’t realize that they actually meant “fair means everyone gets what they need or deserve, so that in the end it all evens out.”

    Here’s a way my parents could’ve explained that fair doesn’t always mean the same.

    John/Leslie: ok, Leanne, let’s say I told you and Ethan I’d give you guys each $6.00 for each hour you helped us out @ the greenhouses.

    Leanne: yeah?

    John/Leslie: and then let’s say you worked @ the greenhouses for 4 hours and Ethan only worked @ the greenhouses for 1. So I said, “oooh nice try, Ethan! I’ll give you $24.00 just like I gave your sister.” Would that be fair?

    Leanne: yes

    John/Leslie: why would it be fair?

    Leanne: cuz we’d both get the same amount of money.

    John/Leslie: but Ethan would be getting paid for work he didn’t do. Would that be fair?

    Leanne: I’d guess not.

    Here’s another 1 my parents could’ve used

    Leslie/John: ok, Leanne, Ethan, let’s say I told you guys I’d give you each 1 sweet treat for every 2 healthful food choices you made.

    Leanne: yeah?

    Ethan: yeah?

    Leslie/John: and then let’s say Leanne, you made 6 healthful food choices, and Ethan, you only made 2. And I said, “aww Leanne! Good job making healthful choices! But you can only have 1 sweet treat because your brother only gets 1. Would that be fair?

    Leanne: yes

    Ethan: yeah.

    Leslie/John: well, think about it. Leanne, you wouldn’t be getting rewarded for all the healthful choices YOU made. You would only be getting rewarded for the ones ETHAN made. Would that be fair if you didn’t get rewarded for what you did?

    Leanne: no, I’d guess not.

    Ethan: nope