How to Help Your Kids When Things Aren't Fair

Young girl having tantrum in bedroom
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If you’re a parent, you probably hear the phrase, “It’s not fair!” on a regular basis. Maybe your kindergartener thinks it’s not fair that their brother got the cookie with more chocolate chips. Perhaps your tween thinks it's completely unjust that they aren’t allowed to go to the mall without parental supervision. Whatever the case, your child experiences something that they don’t like or that feels wrong in some way, and they see it as a total injustice.

As a parent, it can be tough to know what to do in these situations. You don’t want to shut down your child’s feelings, but you also want to teach your child that sometimes life doesn’t go the way they want it to, and that’s OK.

We reached out to mental health and behavioral health experts to help us understand how teaching our children the difference between equality and equity can help in these situations, and what steps we can take when our kids declare that something isn’t fair.

What's the Difference Between Equality vs. Equity?

Understanding the difference between equality and equity can help children who are prone to declaring that everything is unfair all the time. Equality and equity are similar-sounding words, but they mean different things.

To put it simply, equality means that everyone gets the same amount of something and is offered equal opportunities. On the other hand, equity means that different people get different allocations, based on what they need and what their life circumstances dictate.

Most people think we should all strive for equality and that everyone should be treated the same. But this isn’t how life actually works most of the time, explains Amanda Gummer, PhD, founder of The Good Play Guide, parenting expert, and child psychologist.

“This sounds like a positive thing but it doesn't always work, because every person and situation is different,” she explains. Moreover, teaching your child that each person has different needs is a great way to teach them empathy and to see the world from different points of view, she adds.

How to Help Your Child Understand Equity

According to research, equity is a concept that can be difficult for younger children to understand. The idea of allocating different amounts of resources based on needs is a concept that might not be fully embraced until a child is 7 or 8 years old. Still, there are developmentally appropriate ways to teach your child these concepts even from an early age.

For younger children who are still trying to understand the concept, it can help to come up with some real-life examples, explains Dr. Gummer.

You can use the example of bicycles, asking your child what would happen if their family purchased the same sized bikes for everyone. If they purchased only adult-sized bikes, the adults would be able to ride them, but the kids couldn’t; if they were all kid-sized, the adults would have no bike to ride. “Equality is like everyone having the same bike, while equity is everyone having the bike that's the right size for them,” Dr. Gummer explains.

Older children may be able to understand the concept of equity through the lens of social justice. You can teach your child that a person’s background and the discrimination they may face based on sex, gender, or race means that even when things are equal, they may not always be equitable.

As such, equity dictates that people receive accommodations based on where they are coming from as well as the roadblocks they may face. Discussing these ideas with your child can help them be generally more empathetic and allow them to consider the concept of equity in different situations they face.

How Not to Respond When Your Child Says "It's Not Fair"

When your child begins to moan or whine that something isn’t fair, it can be tempting to tell them to stop or to quickly list the reasons why they are incorrect. But this is not the best approach, says Laurie Hollman, PhD, a licensed clinical social worker, psychoanalyst, and expert in parenting and child development.

When a child says something is unfair, they are often deeply experiencing that feeling of something being unfair and it’s important not to unilaterally dismiss that feeling. “Do not react impulsively by dismissing this comment or even arguing its validity,” Dr. Hollman recommends. “This is your child's perspective at that particular age and it needs to be understood and respected.”

Dr. Hollman suggests sitting down and asking your child to tell you more about what they feel is unfair, and to really listen to all the points they are making. “In other words, ‘It's unfair’ should promote a good conversation that can be listened to and come back to again and again,” she says.

Once you establish trust in the conversation, then you may begin to help your child understand concepts such as equality vs. equity, but it’s important to understand where they are coming from, and what they can understand from a developmental standpoint.

How to Respond When Your Child Says "It's Not Fair"

You may find that your child has a pattern of calling everything unfair and probably needs a bit of a lecture about this behavior. However, it may be best not to broach the subject in the heat of the moment when they are already upset, suggests Miriam Frankel, an occupational therapist who specializes in treating mental and behavioral challenges, and founder/director of Bloom.

Consider having this conversation in a setting such as a car, Frankel says, when you are driving and your child doesn’t have to make eye contact with you. “This gives them the space to accommodate their strong feelings that would come up during a conversation about unfairness whereas having eye contact could make them nervous,” she says.

As for what to cover in this conversation, you basically want to help them understand that life isn’t always black and white. “Often, we do one thing and we naturally expect to get results,” Frankel describes. “But it’s important to make our children aware that things don’t always pan out so neatly and fairly like that and that they have the concept in their minds that life is not always fair.”

Similar to Dr. Hollman’s approach, Frankel says that it’s important to acknowledge that your child feels strongly that something is unfair—you can’t minimize the reality of how your child feels. If you are dealing with a situation where your child feels that something is unfair, you can even agree with them that it’s unfair.

For example, if your child is complaining that their friend got more cake than they did, Frankel suggests you say something like, “I know you see that she got a quarter of an inch more chocolate cake than you did and I know that you feel like that’s not fair. I hear you, and you are right, it’s not fair.”

A statement like this shows that you fully accept your child’s feelings and you are not trying to rationalize them away. Once their feelings are fully acknowledged, they can usually more easily move them. At this point, they may be able to embrace other concepts, such as the difference between something being unfair and something being equitable, as well as the idea that life isn’t always “fair,” but that we can learn to adapt and live with this.

A Word From Verywell

Dealing with a child who feels that things are unfair a lot of the time, and who feels upset about it can be difficult, especially if they are prone to intense emotions or meltdowns when this happens. There are ways you can help a child manage their feelings, and ideas you can teach them to make more sense of what is happening.

But sometimes you can’t do it alone. If you are looking for extra help navigating these challenges with your child, consider reaching out to your pediatrician, school counselor, or a child psychologist.

2 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Milken Institute School of Public Health. Equity vs. Equality: What’s the Difference? George Washington University.

  2. Rizzo M, Killen M. Children's understanding of equity in the context of inequality. British Journal of Developmental Psychology. 2016;34(4):569-581. doi:10.1111/bjdp.12150

Additional Reading

By Wendy Wisner
Wendy Wisner is a lactation consultant and writer covering maternal/child health, parenting, general health and wellness, and mental health. She has worked with breastfeeding parents for over a decade, and is a mom to two boys.

Originally written by Amy Morin, LCSW
Amy Morin

Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She's also a psychotherapist, international bestselling author and host of the The Verywell Mind Podcast.

Learn about our editorial process