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Why You Should Listen when Your Child Cries ‘Not Fair!’

This piece is part of Scientific American’s column The Science of Parenting. To learn more, go here.

“That’s not fair!” I live with two young children and hear this cry often. They say it’s unfair that adults get to stay up later, that they didn’t get dessert, and that they don’t have a pool.

I study children’s perceptions of justice, so I knew this moment was coming. Even so, I have been surprised at how their cries of injustice over seemingly trivial things irritate me. I sometimes take it personally. How dare they question my benevolent leadership!


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I could just shut down the conversation with the classic “Life is not fair.” I could defend the justice in my actions or call them out for their bad attitudes. I could listen and address the heated emotions over the who-got-what argument. Or I could distract them because I am too tired to tackle a big life lesson. I have done all of these.

But if we want our kids to be just, they need practice talking about justice. They need patient adults to help them sort out what’s merely unlikable from what is truly unfair.

My research has solidified the understanding that how I respond to my children in these moments will shape their sensitivity to, and empathy toward, people affected by injustice. If we want our children to fight for justice, we need to “lean in” as they grapple with the discomforts of existence.

Justice is central to morality.

Grappling with unfairness is part of moral development. Disengaging or dismissing their early cries for justice fosters cynicism and complacency.

Human awareness and concern around justice starts early. Babies gaze at kinder puppets longer, preferring them over the puppet that stole the ball and ran away. Toddlers give tasty cookies to good characters and yucky foods to bad ones. Children prefer fairness even when it does not favor them. They would rather take their ball and go home than tolerate an unfair game. With age, children increasingly grasp differences between equality (everyone gets the same), equity (based on need or merit), and individual and structural reasons for inequality. Their understanding of justice thickens.

My research with children in São Paulo, Brazil, shows that by age 12, youth have sophisticated beliefs about justice. Children from weathier families said their lives were more fair than the world in general. Children in low-income families rated their lives as less just. By adolescence, we found that children at all income levels know that justice is not distributed equally.

Families that can afford insurance or call a lawyer friend for free legal advice suffer fewer random injustices. They are less likely to have a devastating house fire or debilitating car accident that plunges them into poverty. Teachers are more likely to give affluent children the benefit of the doubt or ask for their side of the story. Children in poverty are more likely to have negative interactions with the police early in their lives—driving different beliefs about police legitimacy and justice. Systemic issues are undeniable. But social class doesn’t fully explain how children develop their views. Consider families and schools.

The children in our research who said their parents listened to their side of the story said their lives were fairer and were less likely to become cynical in the coming years—even in poverty. Adolescents most at risk for delinquency were the ones who said their parents and teachers were disrespectful or demeaning.

Children can grow up financially stable and unscathed from systemic prejudice, yet still experience sibling favoritism, be dehumanized on social media, and attend a school where administrators are clueless or authoritarian.

Zero-tolerance school policies typically backfire because they are unfair. The student trying to break up the fight gets the same suspension. Such policies halt conversations about context and intent. In childhood, injustice comes with a sense of powerlessness. Every experience shapes their worldview. Experiencing injustice is both outraging and demoralizing, often fostering cynicism and disengagement.

If children are not treated fairly, they assume they do not belong in the group, breaking down their social contract. When children are on the benefiting side of injustice (favored or privileged), they may learn to dismiss others’ concerns over injustice, blunting their sensitivity and care for others.

In contrast, some schools have disciplinary policies focused on restoring justice. In this model, adults give youth ample opportunities to practice constructive conversations. Moreover, they provide students with a way to make things right again.

I am part of a team that assessed a school intervention designed to make the classroom more structured and supportive. We asked students questions throughout the year about fair treatment, rule clarity and the quality of their relationships with teachers. In 1,865 fourth and fifth graders, we found that clear school rules and strong relationships within schools predicted youth’s expectations of justice and their moral character.

Interestingly, most of these students grew up in low-income families, around high inequality and with low social mobility. Nonetheless, the justice students experienced in the school predicted children’s bravery, fairness and helping behavior. A child who expects injustice is less likely to speak up to defend a classmate. But youth who experience justice are more likely to model it.

Children need to practice having control over injustice. Injustice is deflating, and every child will experience it. But adults in their lives teach them how to cope with it and act on it. Neuroscience research has revealed that, in harsh conditions, the human default is helplessness. Yet, even in pain, we can learn control if we see even minor results. Children need parents, teachers and coaches to buffer injustices and help them feel powerful.

When teachers are fair and policies are transparent, children’s lives become more fair. When parents provide explanations and natural consequences, they teach children to expect justice. A child who can tell their side of the story before receiving a consequence is receiving due process. A teacher who refrains from disrespecting students when they need to be corrected is offering justice. Parents teach their children about justice when they do not shut down the conversation after a child screams, “That’s not fair.”

When your child says something is unfair, resist the urge to snap back. Consider the unpleasantness they are experiencing and discern what level of complexity they can handle. Perhaps they are just annoyed and need help differentiating injustice from discomfort. Perhaps they are handling a minor injustice and need a listening ear and some perspective. Or maybe they need space to be told they are not crazy for feeling outraged and they are part of a larger story of injustice and tragedy.

Let children tell their side of the story; provide predictable consequences; let them make it right.

If children grow up believing that life is always fair, they will be easily discouraged when life gets hard. Believing life is always unfair can rob children of feeling power over their environment and could leave them cynical and demoralized.

The world is unfair, and I shouldn’t teach my children otherwise. Those who believe the world is a just place are the most likely to blame the victim and believe the victim deserved it so they can feel less vulnerable. It is a natural self-protective mechanism, but it erodes empathy and character development.

Children need to think about justice. Grapple with it. Act on it. Acknowledging unfairness and striving for justice is the only sane path in a painful world.

A few weeks ago my son lost his cookie-eating privileges for the day because of his bad attitude at breakfast. That afternoon, my daughter surprised me by saying she wasn’t going to eat her cookie either. Motivated by justice, she chose solidarity with her brother and equality. Yet she has no problem understanding that she can stay up later than her brother because she is older. She understands equity; she also knows she can’t flaunt it. These tiny family moments are part of a bigger picture.

When I hear my children say, “That’s not fair,” as much as I want to out-argue them, my better judgment reminds me to slow down and let them practice thinking about it.

I want to teach my children to identify real injustices and learn their behavior matters. I want them to feel strong enough to speak up for the child who gets mocked online, and to listen to others’ side of the story. Then, chances are, when faced with both personal and societal injustice, they’ll be sensitive enough yet strong enough to do something about it.

This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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