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Gail Heyman, Ph.D.
Gail Heyman Ph.D.

Talking with Kids about Fairness

Encourage your child’s sense of fair play.

In societies around the world, fairness is one of most fundamental moral values. A number of recent research studies make it clear that children begin thinking about fairness early in life. Three-year-olds sometimes take actions to remedy unfair distribution of prizes, and even 15-month-olds show sensitivity to unfair behavior that they see (see articles in Developmental Psychology and Infancy). However, every parent knows that self interest often overrides these concerns. When children protest that they’re being treated unfairly it may only be because they’re not getting what they want, and they are often more concerned with creating an appearance of fairness than actually trying to be fair (see this article in Journal of Experimental Psychology: General)

A good place to start a conversation about fairness is by talking about collaboration. Young children tend to believe that when people work together, whatever benefits they obtain as a result should be shared (see this article in Developmental Psychology). You can begin by describing a situation in which two people work together to earn prizes and one person keeps all of them. You can then ask your child to reflect on how each person is likely to feel, and what can be done to make the situation more fair.

Parents can ask children to think of ways to resolve conflicts, such as when one child complains that another child is being unfair. This not only helps children to get into the habit of thinking about questions of fairness, but it also promotes creative thinking and problem solving.

You can also promote your child’s sense of fairness by engaging in practices that promote fairness and then discussing them. For example, in conflict situations parents can offer everyone a chance to share their perspective without interruptions. It can also be helpful ask children to role play or explain situations from the perspective of people who disagree with them.

As children become better able to think about fairness in interpersonal settings, they may become interested in discussing broader issues of fairness in society, and parents can help them to think about these issues in a more sophisticated way. Many children have trouble understanding societal factors that can lead to inequality, such as access to educational opportunities. Discussion of these issues, and of current events more broadly, can promote a more sophisticated sense of social awareness (see this article in Developmental Psychology).

As children get older parents can talk to them about some of the complex issues adults grapple with when deciding what is fair, such as the extent to which people who put forth greater effort or get more work done should receive greater rewards. These conversations can help children to develop a better sense what it means to be fair, and think about what they can do to promote fairness in their own relationships and in the world more broadly.

Conversation Starters

Should parents try to treat all of their children in exactly the same way?

Could you be a fair judge of a baking contest that your friend is competing in?

When there is heavy lifting to do, should stronger people be expected to do more work?

Is it possible for a dog to act unfairly?

Check out my free app for iOS, Beyond Small Talk, which offers questions as starting points for meaningful conversations. You can download it directly here.

About the Author
Gail Heyman, Ph.D.

Gail Heyman, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at the University of California at San Diego.

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