“It’s not fair!” This is our instinctive complaint when we do not get what we want. Most adults have learned to hide this feeling, so we notice it most in children. They are quick to lament the injustice of a moment and vocally declare their parents unfair. Children need no course in identifying fairness; it is as though it is innately wired within them. Consider these statements:

“That’s not fair. My brother got a phone when he was 13; why can’t I have one?"
“Why does he get to stay up late and I can’t?”
“It’s not fair! I’m the only one with a curfew.”

The underlying belief is that what happens for one person must happen for the next person, too, or to be more accurate, “I must have the same as whoever has the most and the best.” Voilà! Fairness!

When your child is denied what they believe they deserve, they turn to you and question—even challenge—your goodness. “It’s not fair” often morphs into “You are not fair” or “You are not good.” A young person’s heart is always at work when they complain about fairness, so in our home, we keep it simple. We reply with something like this: “We don’t do what’s fair; we do what is right and good for each of you.” 

We go on to explain that we love each of them and we make decisions based on what each one needs, what we know about them individually, and what we believe will be good for each one. So for example, one child may need a phone for a summer job and sports. He shows maturity and good stewardship, and you trust he will be accountable. However, his brother shows a lack of discernment and immaturity. A phone may be too much of a temptation and possibly cause harm. So as his parent, you choose to withhold something he sees as good, knowing you are protecting him from harm. Love discerns when a privilege may be wise and useful for one child, and when it would cause harm or temptation for another. If we treated all our children exactly the same, life might be easier, but it would not be better or loving to our children. Wise parenting is personal and specific to each child. 

We parent this way because it is how God parents us. He is committed to doing what is best for his children. His sacrifice for us, while we were still against him, is proof enough of his good intent (Rom 5:8). He knows what we need and responds accordingly, even though it is not always what we want from him. At times, we question God’s goodness, too, and use the same accusing words: “It’s not fair.” Why does my friend have a better job or a nicer house, or is married when I am single? Overcoming these struggles becomes a matter of practiced faith in God’s plan for us and a willingness to trust that he knows better.    

In short, our children need what we need—faith in God’s plan. God has made us their parents and charged us to parent them in ways that are good and right even if they differ from child to child. There will be times when our best explanations will not impress our children and they will still believe we are being unfair, so look for teachable moments when you can demonstrate how that “good” thing they wanted turned out to be not so good after all. And look for stories in Scripture that model some aspect of this—how the Israelites regularly grumbled against God in the wilderness despite his good provision for them, and there is always the story of Joseph. Or perhaps share a story from your own life when God withheld something you wanted and you later realized it was for your good. Not every encounter will lead to an enlightened child, but time and growing maturity will hopefully help. After all, that is what helps us, isn’t it?

God loves us, and he uses every circumstance—every yes, every no, and everything in between—for our good. May we, as parents, trust in him for this and strive to follow in his footsteps when we are met with cries of “It’s not fair!"