Fair vs. Equal


Many years ago, when Brayden was still very young, I had a conversation with a dear friend of mine that stuck with me and had a strong impact on my parenting. It was simple, really. She was talking about her siblings (she has a lot) and them wanting everything to be “fair.” She said, “Life isn’t even-steven.”



Maybe it was the rhyme or the fact that I hadn’t thought deeply about the idea of “even-steven” before, or just my new job as a mom and my way of analyzing pretty much everything, but I really thought about that a whole lot. 


Since that conversation, I have analyzed the idea of “fair” as it is commonly used and the idea of equal. We often hear the phrase, “Life isn’t fair.” It is true–life often is not fair. Unfair things happen. And perhaps to compensate for the unfairness life can offer, or the desire to avoid conflict within our home, many of us find ourselves doing everything we can to make life “fair” for our children within our home.


But it isn’t fair.


What we are doing is trying to make life equal. Which, in reality, isn’t fair.


According to my Oxford Dictionary (on a side note, don’t talk to me about Webster–I am all about Oxford), “fair” means “in accordance with the rules or standards; legitimate…just or appropriate in the circumstances.” “Equal” means “being the same in quantity, size, degree, or value.”


To make life equal for our children, we might get them the same Christmas presents so they don’t fight over a toy or get jealous of each other. We might give them all the same bedtime. We might allow younger children to watch shows that are above their level, or prevent older children from watching shows at their level because it isn’t appropriate for the younger children. There are many ways we take life and try to make it all equal for our children.


But that isn’t fair.


It isn’t fair to either child to make bedtime at the same time for everyone if one child needs an earlier or later bedtime than another. It isn’t fair to deny privilege to an older child because the younger child would complain, or to give a younger child a privilege she is not ready to take on. It might be equal, but it is not fair.


Now, of course, life is not lived in a vacuum. Sometimes, in order to protect our younger child from seeing a show that is too mature for her, we have to tell our older child she can’t watch that show right now. Sometimes our younger children are exposed to things at an earlier age than ideal just because she has older siblings. I like the part of the definition of fair that says, “just or appropriate in the circumstances.” Circumstances change and are unique at all times. We have to be able to judge according to circumstance what is appropriate. 


Let me give you an example. We recently read the first Harry Potter book with Kaitlyn. We told her that once she had finished the book, she could watch the first movie. The trick was to find a time when she could watch it. We do not think it is appropriate for McKenna to see the movie yet, so it had to be watched without McKenna. 


One day, McKenna was taking a nap, and Kaitlyn was able to watch the movie during the nap. The movie, however, is quite long, and McKenna was awake before the movie was over. Rather than making Kaitlyn turn the movie off or letting McKenna watch the movie, I took McKenna to another room and had her stay with me while Kaitlyn finished the movie. I told McKenna she was not old enough to watch the movie yet, and she didn’t complain about it at all. 


That worked for our circumstances. Our home is set up in a way that it was possible to do so. Some people might live in a set-up that would require the movie to be turned off for now once the younger child is awake. You have to judge according to your own circumstance. 


Demanding things to be “equal” and striving for it is not unique to children–adults demand equality, too, even when equality is completely unfair. It is so potent in our society, so it is no wonder that it creeps into our families. People who believe in fairness rather than just equality are people who are willing to put in the time and effort required to attain certain things in life. Sure, life isn’t always fair. Sometimes bad things happen to good people. It is impossible for me to consider this topic without including my religious beliefs (or any topic really), and I believe in the end justice and mercy will be completely satisfied (think of the Sermon on the Mount found in Matthew 5…”Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the Earth.”). 


It is an easy trap to fall into–trying to make all things equal among our children. As you navigate parenting, I would encourage you to take a step back and really consider “fair” vs. “equal.” Your children will complain with “That’s not fair!” I have shared before, but when my children complain about things not being fair (and they do), I tell them it is fair, but if they want equal we can make sure that happens. I then list the things they will get to do so things are equal (like, Brayden can take a two hour nap each day if he wants to be equal with McKenna). Just last night, Brayden complained because my mom bought a stuffed animal for Kaitlyn and a stuffed animal for McKenna that day. Despite the fact that Brayden is not interested in stuffed animals, he complained about it. My husband reminded him of all of the many times Brayden had gone golfing with my dad and the girls haven’t gone. We explained that it took money to do that, and if he would like things to be equal, we could have him stop golfing until his sisters had caught up dollar for dollar. He decided it wasn’t so “unfair” after all.


I really hope my children can grow to be happy for other people in what they have and content enough with their own lives that instead of crying out “unfair!” they can be happy for others and happy for themselves. To attain that, it will take more than simply outlining the denotation of the words “fair” and “equal.” A whole lot more. But I think it is a small first step.

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6 thoughts on “Fair vs. Equal”

  1. Love this! We've had this conversation a lot lately in our house because my 4.75yo has the same or sometimes an earlier bedtime than our 22mo most days. Both my 4yo and my DH think that his bedtime should be later than hers, and it's been quite a time explaining that bedtime is not based in any way on the other sibling – it's based on that child's bedtime needs, period! The 22mo takes a 2-3 hour nap many days and he doesn't nap at all, of course, so that's part of how that happens – but regardless, each child goes to bed when THEY need to go to bed! Equal doesn't come into play there.

  2. Today's post referenced this fair vs. equal post. I thought I'd come back here to tell you… This is my favorite post on this blog and I can't believe there aren't more comments! The day I read this, I forwarded it to my husband and we had an awesome conversation that night. We have referenced your message of fair vs equal countless times since. It comes up in our conversations about current events, politics, extended family, social interactions, and parenting. It's SO important to be aware of the difference. He has said he considers it when making business management decisions. So. Thank you for taking the time to write this post and an even bigger thanks for this blog; it has been my #1 parenting resource through two kids for nearly 4 years!

  3. Great post! I can't wait to chew on this a bit more. I think kids often have a strong sense of "Justice" obviously based on their perceptions so I am sure this will be so helpful later!

  4. I really enjoyed this post! Thanks for sharing! What a wonderful and resourceful blog you have here. =)This post reminded me of two other quotes that have also stuck with me. When i was teaching i heard the saying "Fair doesn't mean everyone gets the same thing, it means everyone gets what they need." And when you mentioned sometimes bad things happen to good people it reminded me of the R.C. Sproul quote, "Why do bad things happen to good people? Well, that only happened once, and He volunteered." Really makes me think before I complain and whine (not only kids do it!)


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