By Nathalie Hardy • Columnist • 

Fair expectations and other failures

My sons can switch from fits of laughter to fisticuffs in a matter of minutes over who gets to play with the green train, who owns the brown stegosaurus, who gets which side in the car and who gets unbuckled first. All that is to say, anything is fair game for a fight between my 3- and 5-year-olds.

And while they’re not exactly Cain and Abel, Sam and Jake’s sibling rivalry, albeit an apparently earnest pursuit of the elusive expectation of fairness, was starting to make me crazy. That is, until I realized a tool as simple and neutral as a calendar could end a substantial amount of the bickering.

Now, when they start the shenanigans, I simply point out which day of the month it is. If it’s an even-numbered day, Jake, who was born on the 14th of January, gets to decide who climbs into the van first to sit where. If it’s an odd-numbered day, Sam, who was  born on the 7th of October, can choose which television show they get to watch when.

The odds and evens system is working so well, I should get some sort of peace prize for thinking of it. But perhaps that’s reserved for those who figure out how to handle the fights my system doesn’t resolve.

Those are the ones that fall under what I call the fairness factor, something children seem to be keenly in touch with. I swear, my two seem to look for reasons to be slighted.

“How come Jake’s heart is bigger than my heart?” Sam asked after seeing two lunch sacks on the counter.

I responded, “Or, you could say: ‘Thanks, Mom, for getting up early and making sure I know you love me at lunchtime.’”

And he responded, “Are you being sarcastic? His heart is really bigger than mine.”

Yes, it was. The heart I drew in blue, Jake’s favorite color, was indeed a smidge bigger than the one I drew in red for Sam. But that smidge was big enough to send Sam storming away upset at the unfairness of it all.

Where do kids get the idea that everything should always be fair in the first place? Oh, right. They get it from us.

I spent a week conducting an experiment where I listened to conversations with an ear for how often the idea of fairness came up. I was amazed to see how much misery we experience by the expectation of fairness even though my friends and I were raised with the expression, “Life’s not fair.”

Although I tell my kids, “Life’s not fair,” I’d been acting as if it should be. And that sent a different message.

For instance, I had been carefully measuring their portions, even counting the number of grapes on each plate, to keep things fair and even. Then I realized I was doing them no favors by setting them up to believe everything should be fair.

In truth, some things in life are just unfair. The people who achieve the most success are the ones who’ve stopped taking that personally and embraced it a fact of life.

Instead of protecting my kids from that fact, I am now focused on raising them to learn how to deal with disappointments and both real and perceived injustices. I am focused on getting them to jump to positive conclusions instead of taking everything so personally.

Of course, that whole leading by example thing comes up here, as it does in all aspects of parenting. So I’m monitoring my own tendency to look for the fairness factor in my daily dealings.

It’s really hard to watch your kid’s face fall when he’s disappointed. However, tempting as it is to step in and try to regulate the situation, I’ve been resisting the urge. I’ve come to understand that learning how to fail with grace is something we also need to master.

A common maxim for parents is, “Pick your battles.” And I think that applies to children as well.

If we let our kids deal with their own battles, while we’re standing by to support them, they will have far less to fight about when we’re no longer hovering nearby.

Nathalie Hardy can be reached at

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