Fairness is too often misunderstood, undervalued, or downright ignored. But it is also one of the central tenants of a prosperous and just society. More than merely meaning “equality,” fairness means leveling the playing field and making sure everyone has what they need to succeed.
Without fairness, we leave people behind who might not have the same advantages that many of us do. And so it is vital that we begin teaching our children to be fair at an early age so that the culture they create as adults are one which gives everyone the chance to prosper.
We’re going to take a look at 6 ways you can teach your child fairness so that they have a better chance of growing up to be just, equitable, and kind people.
Have a Discussion
If your child is old enough to hold a conversation, it’s time to have a discussion about fairness—and to have it as often as needed.
You’ll need to lay the foundation for your child’s understanding of this abstract concept. And to do that, you’ll need to understand it yourself. Let’s take a look at what fairness actually is, and just as importantly, what it isn’t.
According to Psychology Today, there are three different ideas about what is meant by fairness. The first idea is equality, which simply means that everyone is presented with the same opportunities for success. Whatever your race, your social class, or gender, it is fair that you have the same opportunities for success, and that you are treated with the same basic kindness and respect as everyone else.
The second is the deservedness. This is the idea that fairness involves people getting what they deserve. If you work for eight hours at your job, for example, it is fair that you are compensated for those eight hours.
The third is need. This takes into account the obligations all humans have toward one another and is the idea that people who are less able should be given what they need to succeed. For example, it is often fair for a child that comes from a low-income environment to receive financial aid in order to complete his or her education. This definition requires compassion and empathy and is the most difficult to implement.
Overall, fairness is the interplay between all three of these seemingly contradictory ideas, and each must be considered. Talk to your child about these ideas, and you’ll sow the seeds for later understanding.
Lead by Example
It all starts with you. At least for the moment, you are the biggest influence on your child’s life. Despite what you might think, they’re constantly observing you, integrating your behavior and speech into their own lives.
If you want your kids to be fair, you’re going to have to be the model of fairness for them.
That means being fair to your spouse. It means being fair to strangers, to waiters, to hotel staff, to everyone, no matter their lot in life. If your children learn that they only have to be fair to a certain type of person, they have failed to learn fairness.
This essential step is also the most difficult—being fair isn’t easy. But it’s worth the work if it means that you and your children are making the world a better place by treating people with the respect and dignity they deserve as human beings.
Watch a Movie
Kids are like sponges. They absorb everything they come into contact with, and so we must take care to curate the media they consume, and—even more importantly—to make sure they understand the behaviors they’ve just seen.
That being said, a great way to teach your child fairness is to watch a movie! What better chance do you have to observe fair or unfair behavior in others? You have the opportunity to pause, rewind, and explain when an instance of fairness or unfairness occurs—movies are great teaching tools.
The key here lies in the discussion. Ask your child questions—if you’ve already spoken with your child about what fairness is, ask if a certain action was or was not fair, and why. If the action was unfair, explore the possibilities of actions that might be fairer.
Finally, talk about why fairness might be important in this fictional situation, and how it might positively affect those involved. With this example, your child can better apply the concept of fairness to his or her own life.
One of the best ways to teach abstract concepts to a child is to play a game. Let’s take a look at an example of this.
Gather your children—and maybe a few of their friends—as well as some candy. Start this roleplay by distributing the candy unequally—give one child more candy than the others.
Cue the “It’s not fair!” protestations.
Proceed by asking your kids how the situation can be made fair—they’ll likely suggest that everyone get an equal number.
Now you have an opportunity to explore the other possibilities for fairness—those based on need or deservedness.
Divide your group of kids into two groups—say, into “children” and “adults”. Encourage discussion: who gets more candy now? Do children get them because they want candy more? Does fairness, in this case, mean equal happiness rather than equal distribution?
Now set a price for the pieces of candy—say, at a dime each. Give the “adult” group some money. The “children” group will be upset because they have no money. How, then, should the candy be divided when one half cannot pay?
The guided conversation these exercises will create can be one of the best ways to teach your child all about fairness—not only that but to see the positive results when fairness is applied.
Practice Positive Reinforcement
If you’ve been following the steps in this guide, your child is probably beginning to pick up on what fairness looks like—or perhaps they’re simply naturally inclined to be fair-minded.
Whatever the case, whenever your child exhibits fair behavior, recognize it. Make sure that they know you admire this behavior, and that it makes you happy.
Creating this link between fairness and positivity is incredibly important. It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that fairness means loss, that it means “I won’t get what I want”. This ignores the big picture; when people are fair in their dealings with one another, everyone benefits—society flourishes, and no one is left behind.
So encourage and praise your child’s moments of fairness, and recognize them for what they are—a kid resisting the “I” and engaging with the “we”.
For a child, that’s quite an accomplishment. Recognize it through positive reinforcement, and you’ll help them adhere to this difficult path.
Finally, this last suggestion is one that does not deal directly with fairness, but rather provides your child with motivation to be fair
Teach your children empathy. Make sure that they know the inherent value of a human being, that they realize that every other person they encounter has an inner life as rich and detailed—and sometimes hurt—as their own. When your child learns to begin thinking outside of their own wants, fairness flourishes.
One of the best ways to encourage empathy is to encourage your child to read. Books allow us to live within the mind of someone who is not as—we get to see a protagonist’s thoughts, feel their feelings, and dream their dreams.
Another great way to encourage empathy is to take your child along with you as you volunteer. Watching people helping people is an incredible experience, and if your child participates, all the better. Be careful not to force this—that can lead to resentment. But allowing your child to observe the effects of kindness and empathy can go a long way toward teaching them to be all-around better people.
Finally, taking care of a pet can teach empathy like nothing else. When a child is at least partially responsible for the welfare of a relatively helpless, living, breathing being that depends on them, a sense of empathy arises. The child is drawn out of a self-absorbed mindset and refocused on the good of another—it's all about the needs of the pet. This is invaluable.
It can be tough to bring a kid out of self-centered ways of thinking, but it’s very possible. Encourage empathy, and you encourage fairness.