'It's Not Fair!' 5 Ways to Help Siblings Feel Equal

What parent hasn't heard her child say, "It's not fair"? Especially when you have multiple kids, it can seem impossible to assure any of them they're getting their fair shake. They "always" get the smaller piece of pie, and they "never" get your attention when they want it, right? Learn what kids really want when they say "It's not fair," and you may just avoid a supercharged sibling rivalry.

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By Keren Perles

You could use a tape measure to cut each piece of cake, and still you’d hear those three words: “It’s not fair!” “You can’t possibly make things fair,” says Laura Markham, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting. “Kids will always argue that someone else got a bigger piece. They actually see it that way—that you’re always favoring their sibling.”

The Bottom Line

What should you do if your child complains that you’re being unfair? Markham suggests the two-step process of Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, authors of Siblings Without Rivalry: Empathize with his disappointment, even if you disagree with his reasoning. Then, address his actual need, especially by showing love.

Learn how you can respond to some common “It’s not fair” scenarios.

“Her piece is bigger!”

If you have just enough for two kids to share, let one kid split the item and let the other choose first, Markham suggests. Or, if you didn't think ahead, lightly mock yourself and replace the coveted item with love. Say, “Oh, no! Her piece was bigger? I can’t believe it! If your piece was even a hundredth smaller, that means I need to make it up to you—with a hundred hugs and kisses!”

“He’s always messing up my things!”

This issue is more important than many parents realize, so don’t shake it off. Owning and taking care of possessions is a valuable experience that teaches life lessons. Give each kid a table to work on that his siblings can’t reach and a sacred shelf or drawer where he can keep his “special things” that no one else is allowed to touch.

“You always spend more time with her!”

Your child is telling you that he wants you to spend time with him, and he’s jealous of time you spend with a sibling. Validate his feelings and assure him that his needs will be met. Say, “You wish I could help you build your model car now. Right now, I’m helping your sister with her project. As soon as I’m finished, I’ll be all yours. Don’t worry—I always have plenty of love to go around, and I can’t wait to spend time with you.”

“How come he gets to fly to visit Grandpa and I don't?”

The real answer may be that he’s too young to fly by himself, but to a child, that’s beside the point. Acknowledge his desire and say, “Maybe you’ll be able to go when you’re older, but I know you still wish you could go this year.” Then, give him the love he craves: “I’m glad you’re staying here with me. I’d miss you if you left. Let’s think of some special things we can do—just me and you.”

“You love her more than me!”

Your goal in responding to this statement should be to show your child how much you love him—not to show him that you love him more than his sibling. If you imply that he’s secretly your favorite, he’ll feel guilty—and wonder what you’re telling his sister. Instead, say, “I could never love anyone more than you! There is no one else like you in the whole world. I’m so lucky that I get to be your mom.”

No, you’ll never prove to your kids that you love them equally. Just let them know that you’ve heard them and that you couldn’t love anyone more than you love them. That’s what every child needs to know.

Are you guilty of playing favorites? Click here to learn the myths and facts about favoritism in the family.

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