"It's not fair!"
I hear that a lot these days. In fact, I've been listening to variations on the same theme, delivered in sundry ways, from statement to scream, for several years.
It's my nine-year-old daughter, Amy. Poor Amy, she must have arrived before her appointed time, because the world was not prepared. The news of her arrival didn't even make a big splash in the media - just a blurred picture and two or three lines to distinguish her from the other fuzzy infant mug shots in the lineup.
Ever since then, Amy has tried to convince us that a mistake was made. This time around, she was scheduled to do time as a princess. She had, no doubt, paid her dues as a serving wench, a peasant - you know, the usual stuff we all endure before getting to the big time. This fling was to have been different. But something went wrong.
What a disappointment it must be.
Her mother and I can't even buy her everything she wants. She doesn't understand about mortgages and car payments. After all, the castle was supposed to have been paid for along with the villa on the Mediterranean.
But the worst of the worst, the supreme insult, is that there was another child in the family before her. His name is Eric.
The problem, as Amy sees it, it that Eric is sometimes given things before she is, or that he gets something bigger or two of something to her one. Dad may even take Eric to the store and buy him something and come home empty-handed for Amy.
"It's not fair!"
"But Amy," I say, "sometimes you and I go to the store and get something just for you. Why, don't you remember that we bought you a new coat and a pair of shoes yesterday? Eric didn't get anything then."
"It's not fair!"
Come to think of it, she's right. "What is fair?" I ask myself. It's a vague concept that is nothing short of impossible to achieve.
What would satisfy my heir apparent (and most small children) is not for us to be "fair," but for us to give them everything they want. "Fair" means "me first" with the biggest and the best.
When there is more than one child in the family, there is no avoiding explosions over who gets what and whose is the best and brightest and on and on.
So what are we to do? Should we try to spend the same amount of money on both children or buy the same number of things for each? Do we have to bring Amy something whenever we take Eric to the store?
No. It's not in Amy's best interest for us to encourage the idea that the world can be relied upon to deliver to her an equal measure of whatever she sees someone else getting. Children with this idea are popularly called "spoiled," and spoiled children, when they grow up, are likely to be extremely frustrated and unhappy because the fairy tale never comes true.
I usually try something like this:
"It may not seem fair that Mommy and Daddy have given something to Eric and not to you, but you and Eric are different people, and we treat you differently. You will have trips to the store of your very own."
Sometimes the explanation doesn't sit well, and she goes into her dying swan routine. I walk away, refusing to get involved in the drama. Eventually she gets over it.
It's not a question of fair. It's a question of balance.
From Parent Power!, copyright 1981 by John Rosemond. (out of print)