"Can I get my ears pierced?" my 5-year-old daughter asked yesterday out of the blue. I told Katie that she can't get her ears pierced until she's a little older. "But, Mom," she continued, "Skyler has her ears pierced -- and she's 5 like me." I reiterated that her father and I think she's too young but that she could get her ears pierced in a few years. "But that's not fair!" she yelled as she stormed out of the room, stopping only briefly to turn and utter this final salvo: "You're the worst mommy ever!"
As it turns out, though, there is a silver lining to the madness: Experts say that Katie is developmentally on track. "Children this age become aware that things don't always turn out equal, and it raises questions for them about how the world works," explains Rebecca Dingfelder, Ph.D., a child psychologist in Durham, North Carolina. With this in mind, how do you explain to your kid why she doesn't have exactly the same amount of things as her friends or that she has different skills, looks, or rules? Here are expert-approved ways to deal with four common child complaints.
Kids equate fairness with sameness, so use this opportunity to explain the difference. "Tell your son that if his sister wore glasses, you wouldn't make him wear them too," suggests Daniel Hilliker, Ph.D., a child psychologist at the Mayo Clinic Children's Center, in Rochester, Minnesota. "Talk about how, as a parent, being fair means making sure that your children's needs are met, but that different children have different needs." In the case of bedtime, explain that a 5-year-old needs more sleep than an 8-year-old, and reassure your child that when he's 8, he'll get to stay up as late as his sister stays up now.
Use this question to trigger a conversation about how everyone is different, and ask your child what makes her unique and what she does well. "This is a great first lesson in building tolerance," says Parents advisor and educational psychologist Michele Borba, Ed.D. "It's also a good way to give your daughter an achievable goal. Say, 'Maybe those girls are so good at jumping rope because they work at it. Do you want to get better at it too? Then let's practice this weekend!'"
Whether it's sweets or an iPad or a big birthday bash that has your child upset, don't shy away from explaining that different families have different values and rules. Renee Ennis, of Presque Isle, Maine, tells her 6-year-old son, Cade, that "we value being healthy" and that he wouldn't be as fast a runner or as good a mountain biker if he were loading up on junk food. If your child is still sulking about what he doesn't have, that's okay. "Acknowledge that it's hard when your friends have something you don't, and ask him how it makes him feel. Then talk about what he does have and is thankful for," says Dr. Dingfelder.
This is a tricky one -- even for experts. "Tell your child that you don't know why, but reassure her that the Tooth Fairy likes her just as much as her cousin," says Dr. Hilliker. Then ask your daughter, "Do you want to continue to feel upset about this? It might be more fun to think about something special you'd like to save your money for. Or we could just put it in your piggy bank and read a funny book together instead."
Originally published in the September 2012 issue of Parents magazine.