Stop worrying about each kid getting the same size cookie or an identical number of gifts, because the short answer to the question above is NO. Here's what children really mean when they scream, "That's not fair!" and the response from you that helps them build character.

By Elizabeth Passarella
Updated November 12, 2015
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Young girl pouting and angry
Credit: Jamie Grill/Getty Images
Young girl pouting and angry
Credit: Jamie Grill/Getty Images

Kids Think Fair Means Equal.

And, frankly, adults often do, too. "OK, OK, you can each have a pink marker." Or (takes broccoli floret off one plate and shoves it into own mouth): "There, now you have the same amount." Through these actions, parents teach their children that fair means equal and also that equal—whether that's a number of toys or minutes on the iPad—is always right. "That is the root of the problem. We train our children to expect that," says Betsy Brown Braun, a child development and behavior specialist and the author of You're Not the Boss of Me. "When a child screams, "That's not fair!" she really means, "I want whatever he has. I'm not happy with what just happened. I got the lollipop with the hair on it." " The result is that parents work overboard to even things out because it's hard (and annoying) to see a child unhappy.

What It Should Mean Is "Just."

"When we say "just," we mean that we're considering all sides of the issue, all variables and people," says Braun. "Fairness is really about giving your child what is needed at the time." It might be extremely practical (one kid needs new shoes because his feet have grown a half size since September) or emotional (kid has rough day, so Mom takes him out to dinner for some one-on-one time). When the other sibling inevitably balks—I want to go to Chick-fil-A with Mom, too—many parents' first instinct is to say, "All right, I'll take you tomorrow night." Don't do that, says Braun: "It undermines the consideration. It lets him know that he'll get the same thing, and that's not life." Instead, the goal should be to teach a child that what doesn't seem fair (in his eyes) is still right and just—because attention (and, OK, sometimes waffle fries) are solving a necessary problem or healing a hurt. "We want our kids to get along with people, and to do that you have to appreciate someone's perspective, to develop a sense of empathy," says Gail Heyman, a professor of psychology at the University of California, San Diego.

Don't Say, "Life's Not Fair."

Oh, it's tempting. Especially for the little injustices that loom large only for a six-year-old (size and shape of Play-Doh allotment, length of time on parental shoulders). "That phrase means absolutely nothing to a child," says Braun. The better response: "I think you're saying that you don't like it. You're unhappy." For the little things, follow that up with "Yep, I'm not always going to scoop ice cream the exact same way every time." Or (when it comes to stuff): "You'd like a new pair of shoes—I get it. And when your feet grow, you'll get them." Don't overexplain. "When you bend over backwards with answers, you run the risk of a child thinking, I'm getting the attention I want," says Braun. But don't brush it off, either. "If one kid gets something more, even if there's a great reason, but you don't talk about it, this creates hidden resentment," says Heyman. Sometimes your kids will be spot on—a situation is truly unjust. "Maybe a child comes home and says, "The teacher punished the whole class for something that one kid did. That's not fair." That's the opportunity for a good discussion, acknowledging that it can be tricky," says Heyman. "Maybe they wouldn't have handled it that way, but they can try to see the teacher's perspective."

Good News! You're Building Resilience.

In addition to developing empathy, children are learning to tolerate disappointment. "There are going to be all kinds of things that happen in a kid's life that don't seem fair. But we rob them of the opportunity to learn resilience when we make everything equal and fine," says Braun. (For older kids, this also robs them of basic math skills: Your child is ticked off because he got one present and his sister got three? Explain how her three smaller things add up to his new bike.) When your child gets a raw deal, sympathize and move on. Be genuine. "Yeah, that's lousy. I understand why you're upset about this." Then share your own disappointments—the promotion that you didn't get, the friend who let you down. Says Braun: "We need to model how to respond to those concepts that we want them to learn."