Fairness, in the Eyes of a 5-Year-Old

Inevitably, it happens. 7 and 5 will be playing and a conflict will arise. 7 will try to reason with 5 about why he’s correct and 5 will either not understand 7’s conclusion or he won’t want to abide it and the situation escalates. Eventually, the situation will end with someone in timeout and someone else in tears.

5 suffers from what many younger siblings do — a sense of inferiority and a desire to be an equal to their older sibling. He sees things in black-and-white terms, where each person should be made to do the same as the other or get an equal amount of something. Of course, for my wife and I, he is an equal. We have tried throughout our time was parents to be as fair and equitable as possible. If one child gets a birthday party with their friends, the other one does, too. At Christmas, we try to spend the same amount of money on each child. If we get a special treat for one child, we make sure there’s something for the other child also. We give love and attention to them in equal amounts. It’s part of the job of being parents.

But in 5’s eyes, things are not always fair. He perceives that his older brother gets to choose the tv show more often. He gets a bigger dessert after dinner. He gets more time on the computer (although a lot of that time is for schoolwork.) He said to me the other day, “How come whenever he does something to me it’s an accident and whenever I do something to him it’s on purpose?” If one hurts the other on purpose, it usually results in a punishment and he feels like he gets punished more often. He views the relationship between he and his brother as unfair, and even though he looks up to his older brother and wants to be with him and play with him, he sometimes feels less than. It’s a challenging situation, this sibling rivalry. It’s like they’re best friends right up until the moment they become mortal enemies.

I do not want 5 to grow up thinking that he’s always looking over his shoulder to see what someone else got and judging and weighing his value based on those types of outcomes. Even at such a young age I try to tell him that no one is attempting to get over on him or treat him unfairly and I point out all the things that he gets do along with his brother. I also tell him that life isn’t fair and, I figure the sooner he realizes that, the better.

The good news is that he doesn’t display this type of behavior at school or around other kids. His concern is with his brother. It’s like we’re raising two alpha males in the same home. The fact that he can handle himself with his peers and not become enraged or unable to contain his emotions is a very positive sign. However, I fear that this sense of “I have to get mine” that he exhibits on a regular basis will leave him unfulfilled, judgmental and possessive. Those are traits I don’t want for him.

Maybe it’s genetic. When I was 21 and in my senior year of college I became the editor of our small newspaper. We only put out about 8 issues a year but each one required a tremendous amount of work. Articles needed to be written and edited. Ads needed to be included. We laid out the paper by hand, which was laborious and, finally, the edition needed to get to the printer, printed and disseminated across campus. Students in the journalism program were supposed to play a role in each element of the process but they rarely did. The work usually fell to 2-3 of us who were committed to the project. Each time we had to put out an edition I would become so angry and frustrated with my fellow students for their laziness and lack of commitment. It drove me nuts. I couldn’t understand why they didn’t see this was an exercise that took equal work from all. It was through that experience were I learned that it usually takes a committed group of just a few people to accomplish a task. It taught me that life is not fair.

For my son, I’ve spoken to some parents and professionals about this and I’ve come to a few conclusions:

* Encourage him to talk. I think the worst thing that we could do is ignore the problem. By failing to acknowledge his feelings we would only be feeding his perception that we’re treating him unfairly. Our goal is not to tell him that he’s correct. Instead, our goal is to acknowledge what he’s feeling, discuss it, frame it and, hopefully, make him feel that he is being treated fairly.

* Show him. There are things that 5 gets to do that 7 doesn’t. For months he was home with me every afternoon after pre-school while his older brother was in 1st grade. That time was special and he got one-on-one time with me. Whenever he talks about how I spent more time with his brother I could point to our afternoons as proof that he got alone time with me, too. My intent is to help him realize that things are not so black-and-white and the time he gets with me is special and so is the time I spend with his brother.

* Make him part of the solution. We can ask for his thoughts on different topics like how they should be punished, what’s a punishable offense and how we should divvy up a treat or a fun meal to make sure that everyone feels they’re getting the same treatment.

My wife and I are both the oldest children in our families so we don’t come at these problems with a built-in mindset. I do have a tremendous sense of fairness and wanting to make sure that everyone pulls their weight and contributes in life. That’s important to me. I can see that 5 shares some of that same mentality and I want to spare him some of the angst and discomfort that I have experienced.

(Photo credit: winnifredxoxo via Foter.com / CC BY)

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