That’s Not Fair! Teaching Kids the Difference Between Fair and Equal

By Barbara Gruener

That’s not fair! Teaching Kids the Difference Between Fair and EqualYou’ve probably heard cries of, “That’s not fair!” a time or two in the recent past. Let’s face it: Life doesn’t always seem fair, especially to our young people. Once they adjust their thinking, however, and can understand and appreciate the simple fact that fair doesn’t always mean equal, it doesn’t seem as insurmountable an issue.

But, how do we effectively concretize that abstract concept?

Start by using the eye-opening example of wearing prescription eyewear. After asking students if fair means equal (their typical response is a resounding, “yes!”), respectfully demand that everyone with glasses remove them because it’s not “fair” if some have glasses while the rest of the class doesn’t. This will challenge their thinking about fair meaning we’re all the same.

Then, use the one-size-fits-all bandage metaphor. Ask students to share aloud the most serious injury they can think of: a broken leg, a concussion, a laceration that requires stitches. As they share their answers, hand each of them a small bandage to fix their injury, no matter how big it is.

Finally, announce that you’re giving a WOW Award. Watch how straight and tall students sit as you contemplate who the recipient will be. Select someone who has something like you, maybe blue eyes, brown hair, or a white shirt. Explain to them how you chose that person and expect shouts of, “That’s not fair!” Let students explain why it’s not and what they think would be a fair way to determine criteria for an award.

Unpack each of these examples to check for understanding before asking again if fair means equal. It’s likely that their thinking will have changed a little bit.

In all fairness, we must teach students two key words and their definitions from Merriam-Webster to better understand the idea of fairness:

Equality: the quality or state of being equal; the quality or state of having the same rights, social status, etc.

Equity: fairness or justice in the way people are treated

Dealing with Unfairness: Six Tips for KidsYounger students will likely need your help understanding the difference. Simply put, fairness isn’t about everything being equal, but about leveling the playing field so that people get what they need when they need it.

Once students understand and can discern between equality and equity, glean examples from their everyday life and use them as prompts in a game of “Fair or Foul?” Do these scenarios hit a fair ball or a foul ball in the game of life? If foul, how can they be changed to make the situation fair? Some scenarios you can use are:

  • Your older sister gets to stay up later than you.
  • Your brother got money for his birthday and you didn’t.
  • Your friend brings her ball to school but won’t let you play with it.
  • Nick always gets to be the line leader.
  • You save a seat for someone in the cafeteria.
  • Your friend lets you cut in line in front of him at the drinking fountain.

Once you’ve played a few rounds, let your students supply the next few prompts to get a sneak peek into their world. Then, turn to literature to find more models for what’s fair and what’s not. Use the following titles to help students reflect on how the characters in these stories resolved their fairness frustrations:

A few more strong titles include:

Finally, keep the lines of communication open and give students permission to discuss their thoughts and feelings when life doesn’t seem fair. Ask them what they want or need to resolve their conflicts. Help them become problem solvers by listening to their concerns and offering equitable options to help strengthen their voices and choices as they work to negotiate life so that it feels fair for everyone.

Bonus! Download Dealing with Unfairness, a free printable page from What’s Up with My Family? These six tips will help kids keep their cool when life isn’t fair.

Barbara GruenerCurrently in her 32nd year as an educator, Barbara Gruener, a school counselor and character coach at Bales Intermediate School in Friendswood, Texas, has had the pleasure of working with kids from every grade level. Author of the blog The Corner on Character and the book What’s Under Your Cape? SUPERHEROES of the Character Kind, Barbara enjoys positively influencing change through her inspirational keynotes and interactive workshops. When she’s not working, you can bet Barbara is knitting, baking, writing, reading, walking, gardening, napping, or spending time with her husband and their three children.

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14 Responses to That’s Not Fair! Teaching Kids the Difference Between Fair and Equal

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  8. hunter says:

    this is a awesome way to show how to show kids that not everything is fair.

  9. Leanne Strong says:

    Here is my take on why kids say, “it’s not fair,” and how to handle it. When kids are little (like when they are learning how to share and take turns), adults and older kids often teach them that they have to be fair. And this means everyone gets the exact same snack. Or the exact same number of presents on their birthday, or turns on the swings at recess. This can lead the children and the adults and older kids in the children’s lives down a road that is hard to navigate for both children and adults.

    I have Asperger Syndrome (less severe form of Autism), and I am a very literal and concrete thinker who doesn’t easily understand where the ‘grey areas’ lie (common among people on the Autism Spectrum). I thought it wasn’t fair if I felt like my parents were letting my brother (2 years younger than me, and doesn’t have any disabilities) off easy for something that I would have been reprimanded or corrected for at his age. Or if one of us received more gifts from friends and family at holiday time. This was because I remembered adults saying stuff like, “Leanne, it’s not fair that you get more cupcakes than your brother does,” and I did not like the ‘fairness’ rule being broken!

    When the child is calm, you can use one of these explanations (or a similar explanation) to explain what you meant when you said, “it’s not fair that you get more than the others do,”:

    “Equal means everyone gets exactly 1 hour of screen time every day. Fair means nobody gets more than 1 hour of screen time every day, but some people may get less.”

    “Fair means everyone is happy with the birthday presents they get. Equal means everyone gets the exact same number of presents on their birthday.”

    “Equal means that rules and consequences for breaking a rule are exactly the same for everyone. Fair means rules are the same for everyone, but consequences for breaking the rules might be different.”

  10. Jack Ring says:

    The best example of fair has been around for centuries, Do Unto Others As You Would Have Them Do Unto You. Fairness isn’t about their experiences, it is about your decisions.

  11. Leanne Strong says:

    If you think about it, when kids are younger, the adults and older kids in their lives teach them that fairness means nobody gets an extra minute on the computer. Or everyone gets the same snack. I have Asperger Syndrome (milder Autism), and a lot of people on the Autism Spectrum (including me) have a very rigid understanding of how things are. Things can go a whole bunch of different ways, but the adults and older kids in our lives teach only teach us about one or two ways.

    If you are reading this article and you are a parent/guardian, or have a job where you work with kids, here are some questions you should ask yourself (the ones with the stars next to them are big ones):

    Do I always slice the cake, brownies, bread, and other stuff to make sure each slice is the exact same size?

    Do I carefully count the birthday presents I buy or make for everyone in order to make sure everyone gets the same amount of presents on their birthday?

    Am I constantly monitoring and keeping track of how much time and attention I give each child to make sure everyone gets the same amount of attention?

    Am I constantly keeping track of how often I discipline each child, how I discipline, and what for, in order to make sure everyone gets the exact same amount of discipline?

    If one child needs certain accommodations, do I deny that child those accommodations (or on the flip side, do I give those accommodations even to children who don’t need them), because “it’s not fair” that some children get those accommodations and others don’t?

    Do I give each student the exact same grade on tests, projects, assignments, and other schoolwork, because “it’s not fair” to give each student a different grade?

    ***Am I always trying to make sure my kids (or the kids I work with) are being fair all the time?***

    ***If I notice that one of my kids (or the kids I work with) has something different, or a different amount of something than the others, do you always say something like, “it’s not fair that you get more cookies than your siblings do,” or, “I won’t let you take more time to finish your work than the other kids, because it’s not fair that you get more time to finish your work than they do?”***

    If you do even one of the things I mentioned, there are two very important lessons that your kids (or the kids you work with) might not be learning. One of those lessons is that not everything is fair all the time. A whole group of people can do the same good deed, but only one or two of them get recognized for it. Several people can be exposed to the same illness at the same time, but only a few of them get sick. The other lesson is that fairness doesn’t always mean treating everyone exactly the same. Babies and younger kids usually require more time and attention than older kids. Children with significant health problems might require more of your time and attention than children with few or no health problems. Children with certain special needs might need more of your time and attention than children without special needs (or with fewer or less severe special needs). If you give all of your students the same grade, you are probably not motivating them to work harder. It also denounces the students who actually earned the higher grades. Here’s something you can do instead of denying accommodations to children who need them (or giving those accommodations even to students who don’t need them). If one student says something about a classmate getting certain accommodations the other students don’t get, you can tell that student something like, “Jordan needs more time to finish his/her tests. If you needed more time to finish your tests, you would get more time too.”

  12. Leanne Strong says:

    Here are some other ways to explain fairness to kids:

    Equal means everyone spends exactly 1 hour on the computer each day. Fairness means it’s not ok to spend more than 1 hour on the computer each day, but it’s ok to spend less than 1 hour on the computer.

    Equal means everyone gets the exact same number of presents on their birthday. Fairness means everyone is happy with the birthday presents they get.

    Equal means everyone has the same rules and the same consequences. Fair means everyone has the same rules but consequences might be different.

    I have Asperger Syndrome (milder end of Autism Spectrum), so I understand right and wrong in a very rigid way (a lot of people on the Autism Spectrum understand right and wrong this way). If you tell a kid on the Autism Spectrum, “It’s not fair that you get more cookies than your sibling does,” that child is more likely to understand that fairness means treating everyone exactly the same, unless it’s explained to him/her a different way. You might say, “there are only enough for you and your sibling each to have 2 cookies. It’s OK if s/he only wanted 1, but it’s not fair that you took 3.” If you say this to a child on the Autism Spectrum (or really, any kid), s/he might understand that fairness means everyone is happy with what they get, rather than using the exact same tactics with everyone.

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