The Fairness Fanatic

An older child may cry foul when you set up different rules for his younger sibling. How do you explain that you're still being fair?

years_4_7_pix Frank Heckers

Q: My son says I'm "unfair" because I have different rules for his 3-year-old brother. How can I explain that fairness isn't the issue?

A: First of all, try not to get angry with your child and say something like "You're right, it's not fair, but that's my decision, so tough it out, kid," advises Henry J. Gault, M.D., a spokesperson for the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry in Washington, DC. "That will only discourage open communication," he observes. "Instead, be sensitive to the fact that most 7-year-olds equate fairness with sameness," and be prepared to explain the difference.

For instance, you might say to your child, "I'm sorry you're upset. I can assure you that your father and I try very hard to treat both you and your brother fairly. That doesn't mean we must treat you in exactly the same way, though. Sometimes, we may seem to be a little less strict with your brother. But that's because he's only 3 and is just learning about right and wrong ways to behave. When you were 3, we treated you the same way we treat him. But you're older now and have had a lot more time to learn, so we now expect more of you. When your brother is 7, we'll expect more of him, too. That's what fair parents do." In addition, you can point out the advantages of being treated differently, like having a later bedtime.