Does Fair Mean Equal?

Does Fair Mean Equal?

Ever since we were little, my older sister Colleen has been concerned with "fairness." She was aware of every discrepancy between the two of us, from the amount of attention we got from our parents to the number of apple slices we each had on our plates at snack time.

Since we were a Language of Listening® household, my parents used Success Training to turn this hyper-awareness into a strength — "master comparer." Every time my mom was dividing, measuring, or pouring something, Colleen would be called over to assist because of her keen eye for exact equivalence. She wore it proudly, and it really helped that during moments she might have used as "proof" that my parents cared more about me, we were able as a family to identify that it was just her strong sense of "fairness."

Recently, she shared that it has been coming up in her life a lot, in different ways.  She has noticed that she has a hard time receiving favors because she worries she will "owe" that person. She is constantly concerned about maintaining a tit-for-tat level of equality in all of her friendships and relationships, and it's proving very stressful. Fortunately, when we spoke on the phone most recently, I was able to identify her collapse that "fairness = equality" and offer a different perspective.

Several years ago, I read a great book called "Siblings Without Rivalry" (If you like our stuff, I heavily recommend it). One of the chapters in that book dealt with fairness, and it gave me a wonderful mindset that has made this often hot-button topic a non-issue for me in my own personal life as well as my work with children. The main point of the chapter is that "children don't need to be treated equally, they need to be treated uniquely."

If you have ever interacted with children, you know this to be true. You can spend the exact same amount of time with two children, and one of them will say that it's still unfair because his brother got to spend the time first, or because he got to be playing with a special toy when he did it. Trying to make everything exactly the same between children is one of the fastest ways I know to drive yourself crazy.

So I don't. Instead, I tailor the activity to fit the specific needs of the child.

One day I was working on the playground at a preschool. There were about 5 children who all wanted to use the only swing. After establishing that the child currently on the swing would need to eventually let someone else have a turn, I asked him how many pushes he would like before he could feel ready to get off. When he announced "four!" (his own age), I checked with the bystanders to make sure they felt able to wait that long. Once I got clearance that everyone was okay with four, we counted together as I gave him four pushes on the swing. As soon as his four were up, he gleefully slid off the swing and stood at the end of the line that had formed.

I asked the next little girl how many pushes, and she requested ten, so once again I checked with the other children, then we counted together until her turn was up. The next child wanted five. Very quickly it became evident that they were more excited about picking a number that had personal significance to them (their age, as high as they could count, etc.) than about getting the same number of pushes as the child before.

This works in the adult world, too. When people make a business arrangement, usually they are not agreeing receive the same thing or split something equally down the middle. Negotiations are engineered so that each party is happy with the individual results that reflect their specialized needs.

Fairness is not about getting equal stuff but about equally getting "what you want," no matter how radically different.

Or, as I put it to Colleen over the phone, "Fairness doesn't mean that everybody gets the same thing. It just means that everyone is happy." Freed from the burden of equality, she was invigorated and eager to put this new definition of "fairness" into practice in her life, when just moments before, the idea of "fair" was a stressful, often impossible prospect.

When you think about it, it only makes sense. Since what you want (i.e. what you like & love) is an expression of who you are, how could it ever be fair for one person to be validated and another not?


  1. Julia Kurskaya |

    “Fairness” is not the same as “equality” – wow, Betsy, thank you for bringing this up! I certainly had these two collapsed. Now as I think about it, it makes so much sense: people like different things and they have different needs, of course, they don’t have to be treated equaly!

    And, of course, we always did the same amount of pushes with a number of kids and one swing. Now I’m looking forward to asking them how many they needed. But there’s one thing… Our 5 YO friend Nick is very good with numbers. When I ask him, he might answer “A million!”. What do I do then?

    • Ooh, ooh, I know! pick me! pick me!
      Unless he’s talking about grains of sand, or something else like that, you could grant his request in fantasy. “I know you really wold love to have a million cookies, would that be amazing? But right now, there’s up to four cookies to choose from. How many do you want?”

      Or something like that, right Betsy?

      Thank you for freeing me from fair=equal! Ha! So much easier to ask for what I want, when getting it gives another person an opportunity to get what they want-being generous.

      <3 <3 <3 that I have such a wise sister too! <3 <3 <3

      • Julia Kurskaya |

        Oh, yes, Colleen, granting kid’s requests in imagination is such a great option and I somehow just keep forgeting about it! Thank you for reminding. Nick would just LOVE going into fantasy like that! Thank you for taking your time to answer!

        I enjoy your sister’s wise words very much. They keep on reminding and revealing things that are really important for me. I’ve talked to my husband after reading this one, and we thought like if everyone would get that “fair” doesn’t mean “equal”, our lifes would be just so much easier!

        • Betsy Blackard |

          Of course you would find a way for “a million” to be possible, Colleen! 🙂 And you nailed it on the granting wishes in fantasy and limit-setting.

          I am personally a huge fan of fantasy wish-granting (I have some pretty fantastical wishes myself), so I like to go with the kids as far into the fantasy as they want. It’s more fun (and gratifying) that way!

          And Julia, I totally agree! Having clarity around “fair” and “equal” makes everyone’s lives easier. It makes it okay to want what you want!

          Oh, and one more thing about granting wishes in fantasy: a lot of the time, it can feel scary to really get on the kid’s level with wish-granting, especially if you’re granting a wish in fantasy that you would never be okay with in real life. The thing to remember is that validation does not equal permission. For example, you can validate all day long how great your child thinks life would be if she never had to eat vegetables again, but at the end of the day, she does have to eat some vegetables sometime. Having the “only junk food now and always” wish granted in fantasy helps the real-life boundary feel more tolerable.

  2. Betsy Blackard |


    Glad to help! As far as your friend Nick is concerned…it sounds like YOU are not ok with a million pushes (I certainly wouldn’t be!). In that case, you can let him know the maximum number of pushes you are okay with. If he chooses that, you can ask the other kids, “Is that okay with you?” If they say “No,” you can go back and forth until you find a number everyone can agree on.

    In my example above, a similarly precocious child very quickly asked for 20 pushes each time, and as soon as his friends saw how long of a turn he got, they all wanted 20. Since that was ok with everyone, myself included, the rest of our outside time was spent with each child getting 20 pushes on his or her turn. He did eventually ask for 21, and I just let him know the most I was ok with was 20.

    When a child asks for an extreme or impossible number like a million, however, what I hear is not that he actually wants a million pushes, but that he’s excited to share what he knows. This would be a great time to go into fantasy with him and explore what his idea of a million pushes would be like, or learn what other big numbers he knows, or whatever else he is excited to share with you. You might be surprised by the direction he takes it, but you’ll always learn something!

    • Julia Kurskaya |

      Betsy, you are absolutely right about him being excited to share what he knows! He is the kind of kid who shines with this excitement. Going into fantasy with him will certainly work!

      There’s another great point of yours that I’ve missed – thinking about this situation I forgot about ME. 🙂 I only thought of how would other kids react. Like asking them if million was okay with them. And then, they wouldn’t know how much is a milion, so I got stuck there. Of course it’s obvious that million is not okay with ME, but I didn’t think about letting them know my limit first. (With a number of kids 20 pushes sounds quite reasonable, I’ll remember that!)

      Thank you for your answer, Betsy! Waiting for another post…

  3. Leanne Strong |

    Great perspective! I have Asperger Syndrome (milder end of Autism Spectrum, now just called Autism with different levels of severity), and because of that, I have difficulty understanding what other people say vs what they actually mean. When my parents said stuff like, “Leanne, it’s not fair that you get more cookies than your brother does,” I thought they meant that fairness means treating everyone exactly the same. Maybe they actually meant that it was ok if he wanted less than X number of cookies, but it wasn’t fair that I took more than that amount.

    Here are some ways you can explain the difference between fair and equal to young children, and to people who have difficulty understanding the difference between others say and what they actually mean:

    “Equal means everyone gets exactly 10 minutes on the swing each day. Fairness means it’s ok to play on the swing for less than 10 minutes each day, but it’s not ok to play on the swing for more than 10 minutes.”

    “Fair means everyone is happy with the number of birthday presents they get. Equal means everyone gets the exact same number of presents on their birthday.”

    “Equal means everyone has to follow the same rules, and has the same consequences for breaking the rules. Fair means everyone has to follow the same rules, but consequences might be different.”

    This may help reduce the number of times your children (or the children you work with) say things like, “it’s not fair.” This may be helpful next time someone gets an extra minute to finish a task or assignment. Or an extra dollar (or whatever currency they use where you are) in their allowance. They may understand that just because something is not equal doesn’t mean it’s not fair.

    Here are some questions I would like you (reader) to ask yourself (if you see a question with stars next to it, this is a big one):

    Do I cut the bread (or cake, or pizza, or pie, or other) so that each slice is the exact same size?

    Do I count the number of birthday gifts I buy or make for each of my friends and family members, in order to make sure everyone gets the exact same number of presents on their birthday?

    Am I constantly keeping track of how I discipline each child, how often I discipline each child, and for what reasons, so that I can make sure each child gets the exact same amount of discipline at the exact same age?

    Am I constantly monitoring how much time and attention I give each child to make sure everyone gets the exact same amount of attention?

    If some children need certain accommodations, do I deny those children the accommodations they need (or vice versa, do I give those accommodations, even to the students who don’t need them), because I think it would seem unfair that some children get those accommodations, and others don’t?

    Do I give each student the exact same grade?

    ***if I notice that one child has something different, or a different amount of something than the others, do I say stuff like, “it’s not fair that you get more cupcakes than your siblings,” or, “I’m not going to let you take more time to finish your test than the other kids, because it’s not fair that you get more time than they do?”

    If even one of these things sounds like something you do, you are implementing fairness at the level of a 6 year old. You are only reinforcing the idea that fairness means everyone gets treated exactly the same, when in fact it doesn’t. There are two very important lessons your children (or the children you work with) might not be learning when you do this. One of those lessons is that not everything is fair all the time. Sometimes two people are exposed to the same illness, but only one of them gets sick. Sometimes two people do the same good deed, but only one gets recognized for it. Another one of those lessons is that fair doesn’t always mean equal. It means everyone is happy with what they get, rather than using the exact same tactics with everyone. Babies and younger children usually need more time and attention than older children do. Children with certain health conditions might require more time and attention than relatively healthy children. Children with certain special needs might also require more attention. What one child might consider punishment might not be enough for another child. If you give each student the exact same grade, after a while your students might start thinking things like, “I’m just going to get a bad grade on this project, no matter how hard I work on it,” or, “I don’t need to put a lot of effort into this assignment, because my teacher is just going to give me a good grade anywho.” In a workplace, you can’t expect to get that promotion or salary raise if you do have a deplorable work performance. If a child needs certain accommodations, it’s probably to help that child feel successful. As the adult (or figure of authority) in the situation, you need to use your adult reasoning when it comes to fairness. Not your 7 year old reasoning.

    • Betsy Blackard |

      Leanne, you have a lot to say about this topic! Your passion for clear communication and your desire to help others shows. Thank you for taking the time to share your experience and suggestions here so others can benefit. We love when readers engage with us!

      • Leanne Strong |

        Thank you very much, Betsy! I have a milder form of Autism (it used to be called Asperger Syndrome, little to no delay or difficulty with speech or cognitive skills), and that makes it harder for me to understand the difference between what other people say and what they actually mean. Maybe if my parents (who are both neurotypical) had explained fairness the way I suggested in a previous comment (or in a similar way), maybe I would have understood what they meant when they said stuff like, “Leanne, it’s not fair that you get more cookies than your brother does.” Maybe I would have understood that it was ok if he didn’t wan’t X number of cookies, but it wasn’t ok for me to take more than X number of cookies.

        I thought it wasn’t fair if I felt like my parents were letting my brother (2 years younger than me, and doesn’t have any disabilities) off easy for something that would have earned me a good talking to when I was his age. That was because it didn’t look exactly equal. Not because I thought he needed or deserved stricter discipline, or because I didn’t think I needed or deserved the discipline I was getting. ,

        I’m the older child in a family with only 2 children. I think it’s a thing with us oldest children, that makes us more concerned about fairness than our younger siblings. After all, our parents might be more concerned about making sure we are being fair than they are about making sure our younger siblings are being fair (but this is not true for all parents).

        I think it is also a thing with people who have difficulty understanding what other people say vs what they actually mean. As I have mentioned, I am on the milder end of the Autism Spectrum (little to no delay or difficulty using verbal communication or cognitive skills). A lot of people on the Autism Spectrum have a very rigid understanding of what is right and wrong, and of how things should be.

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