Helping kids cope with, “That’s not fair!” while building their understanding of others
When we were out to breakfast on Sunday morning, my 2 year old daughter, Grace saw a little girl with an eye patch. She had a large patch covering one of her eyes and Grace noticed it right away. “Mama, why she have sticker?”
Grace was intrigued. She wanted to know why the little girl had one and further, if she could have one as well. I explained the answers to Grace in a quiet but matter of fact tone. “She needs that sticker to help her eyes see better. You don’t need a sticker on either of your eyes. I know you love stickers and hers looks really pretty!” I stopped there. Grace looked for a few more seconds and then went back to eating. That answer was sufficient.
I think it is important to help our kids understand differences, even when this leads to potentially uncomfortable topics or subject matters that do not feel age appropriate. One of our jobs is to then make it age appropriate. I didn’t need to initially explain to Grace that it isn’t a sticker, it’s an eye patch and the exact reason she was wearing it. Honestly, I don’t know even the exact reason. But having open, honest conversations with our kids about differences isn’t only healthy, it’s imperative to create an inclusive world.
My background is in special education and I have always had a soft spot for kids with different learning styles. When I was in the classroom, my goal was always to create an inclusive classroom. This meant everyone got what they needed, which didn’t always look the same. However, this wasn’t always easy. “Why does he get that wobble chair? Why can’t I have a special pencil? That’s not fair.”
Fair is a difficult concept that most adults haven’t even come to terms with. And it’s absolutely true. So many things in life aren’t fair. From a child being born into a poverty, someone suffering a terrible accident, one person getting a promotion over someone else, or losing a loved one too soon, we don’t have to look far to find examples that feel extremely unfair.
Ways to help kids understand differences
For little kids, speak in general terms
There is no need to go into extreme detail, especially off the bat. Use general terms when possible which helps diffuse subject matter that may feel uncomfortable. I often turn to religion as a source of explanation which I have overheard Keener repeat multiple times. “That’s how God made you/me/that person” is a very simple and honest way to explain differences. Many questions such as ‘Why does her tummy have a baby in it?’ can be answered, in part, because of God.
Talk about differences positively
Our children pick up on just about everything – our excitement, anxiety and comfort levels. If your child catches you off guard, be honest with them and tell them you would love to have a conversation about that but need some time to gather your thoughts first. There is no way to be fully prepared for the list of questions that will be thrown your way. When you are answering questions, make sure your tone is positive and accepting. Accidents, birth defects, disabilities, and physical deformities can all be challenging to discuss, but they don’t need to be talked about in a negative way.
Use a matter of fact/calm tone
This is particularly helpful for sibling/attention issues. State things in a matter of fact way. Kids are very quick to point out when things are not fair with a sibling. Be mindful of your tone and try to remove any blame, apology or frustration. Simply state the facts and embrace the differences. Grace, you are not tall enough to reach the lights right now and that’s OK. You might need to get a stool if you want to turn the lights off by yourself. Keener doesn’t need a stool because he is taller.
Validate that things are unfair
Sometimes, kids (and adults) just want to be heard. They need to vent that they feel mistreated and want to express their frustration. Be the judge on when this is helpful and when they need a reminder to consider their own strengths and needs and make a plan to move forward. It sounds like you are really frustrated that Grace spent more time with Mimi. You’re right bud. Sometimes we all feel left out. It’s OK to feel that way. Feelings come and go so thankfully this feeling won’t last even though right now it feels like it will.
Use everyday items to discuss differences
The other day, Keener wanted to take the elevator and I told him we were taking the stairs. “But why?” Keener, some people can’t take the stairs because their legs might not work the same way ours do. Also, someone might be carrying someone really heavy and it would be unsafe for them to take the stairs. Can you think of any other reasons someone might need to take an elevator over the stairs? From there, we talked about the impact of fires on ways people leave a building, compared taking the stairs to eating healthy foods, and made a connection to sitting and watching too much TV.
Below are some other ideas I have used to help both my students and my own children better understand differences:
- Let your kids/students know that your job is to help everyone get what they need to be successful.
- Let kids know that the more we learn about and pay attention to ourselves, the more we are able to identify what we need.
- Give examples about yourself. I need to stand up after I sit for a long time or I lose focus.
- Preview with kids differences they might expect to see. If you are going somewhere where you anticipate someone will be in a wheelchair or be on oxygen, explain to them beforehand why those people need those tools to help them.
- Use books as a way to teach. It’s much less public to explain what a service dog is when they see a character in a book using one than a neighbor or someone at the grocery store.
- For difficult topics, follow the kid’s lead. One of my favorite strategies is asking them questions back. For example when Keener asked, “Does God have a penis?” I asked him right back, “I’m not sure, what do you think?” Sometimes, they want to dive deep. But more often than not, it is a fleeting inquiry (thank goodness).