Fairness and parenting

When my sister and I were little, my mother was always nicer to other children.

She wasn’t, obviously, but it sometimes seemed that way. When something needed shared or someone got to make a choice, the people who benefited tended to be our guests and not us. For years, my sister deeply resented a family friend to whom, on one never-forgotten occasion, she had to relinquish her packet of salt and vinegar crisps.

That’s one particular occasion, though, and says more about the intense feelings my sister cherished (and cherishes) for salt and vinegar crisps than about being nice to guests. In general, it didn’t bother us, and in general we understood that when you have guests, you look after them.

It was generally the way things were but not always. The thing that interests me, looking back, is how I felt about parents who clearly favoured their own children. And I can only think of one example, actually, of someone who did. We hated going to her house, though we did like the kids. By contrast, my mum was ridiculously popular with the neighbourhood kids and my school friends, and we had kids in and out of our house all the time (she wasn’t soft — I feel the need to say — she was pretty strict, but she was fair).

It’s weird, because of course you like your own kids better than anyone else’s. However lovely someone else’s child is (and my boys have some adorable friends), your kids are yours, and you understand them better.

So two thoughts:

(a) Is being fair between kids a good thing, even if it means prioritising another child’s desires over your own child’s? I think it is — I think it helps kids understand that they don’t always have to get exactly what they want, and they’re still special and loved. I think it’s part of the whole ethical parenting thing (see this article in the Tablet for really interesting thoughts on morality in parenting).

(b) Does such an approach teach your child that others are more important than they are? Does that impact on their self-confidence and self-belief? I hope not. A child who is secure and loved surely doesn’t have to be most important all the time?

Now my head hurts. This parenting stuff is complicated.

2 thoughts on “Fairness and parenting

  1. Laura Rueckert

    When it comes to being fair, I don’t think you prioritize other kids over your own. It’s more like you give the “foreign” kids equal priority (at least temporarily). I admit that we have special rules for guests though. If my child and another want to do different things, I tell my kids to let the other kid decide first – but that doesn’t mean my child never gets to make a decision. Just that they don’t get to be first when they have a guest. And I certainly don’t think that kind of treatment teaches kids they are less important than others. I hope it teaches them equality and how to be a good host.

    Not sure if I’m oversimplifying things here. I have enough other parenting topics that turn my brain into spaghetti. So I agree (as I try to write with happily screaming children in the background), parenting is complicated. :-)

  2. admin Post author

    No, you’re right. Parenting in general turns my brain into spaghetti. I suppose I worry about things like sharing. If I break a biscuit in half, and one half is larger, I’ll always give that one to the visiting child and not mine. I think that’s just good manners. And if the kids are arguing, I’ll rarely tell the other child off but I’ll happily indicate to mine that their behaviour could change.

    So it comes over as favouritism, but actually (I spoke to my 6 yo about it this morning and he clarified my thoughts) I suppose it’s really about favouring your own child, because they’re the one you’re training to be a decent human being.

    (but then: am I training my kids to be decent human doormats…? Argh!)


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