Children feel life’s unfairness

By Anita Doberman: Columnist

A few days ago, my second-born, Anna, threw a temper tantrum because her older sister was going to play at the home of a friend from kindergarten. She insisted it was unfair, and what started with a pleading tone quickly escalated into whining and yelling about this apparent age discrimination.

“Why did I have to be born second? Why can’t I be first? Will I ever be older than Luisa?”

This too then escalated into a few key words she managed to get out between sobs and gasps for breath. “Why? (sob) Older?” (sob) Not fair!” And so on.

I am a first-born and didn’t have the experience of having an older sibling ahead of me in everything I did. In fact, I was older than several of my cousins by two or three years, so I was the leader of our little generation. I didn’t have to have the experience of being second to sense my daughter’s anguish. I wanted to help my daughter feel that second, in this case, is just as good as first. But she was inconsolable.

Anna has become extremely focused on her older sister and on all the things she gets to do. Luisa, 6, is part of a summer sports camp with a few friends from school. No matter how many things I have Anna do, she only wants to do what her sister does. I don’t want to start giving in to her preschool blackmail (disappoint me and I’ll go off like a bomb), so I called my sister, younger by four years and a psychologist, and asked for her opinion. How could I focus Anna’s attention on her own accomplishments?

I told what I had been doing so far, and she replied that what I was doing was about all I could do. Explain things as best you can, tell your kids you love them, and accept the occasional tantrum. I knew she was right, but it still didn’t sit well, and I wondered what it was that bothered me about this reasoned approach.

Finally I realized that it brought back memories of adults telling me those horrible, rational things adults say to kids, things such as, “It doesn’t matter who started it,” and the all-time classic, “Sometimes life’s not fair.”

To a kid, it does matter who started it, and it doesn’t matter that life’s not fair in some grand existential sense. It matters that life’s not fair right now, as in, “why can’t I be older.”

This wasn’t getting me any closer to a solution, but at least it was helping me understand my kids, and myself better. Life isn’t fair, it’s often tragic and cruel, and we’re torn between doing everything we can to protect our kids from the world’s unfairness and teaching them life lessons about not being able to get everything you want.

Finally, I decided the more pressing issue was much more simple. Being young might not be unfair, but throwing a tantrum certainly is — to me. So I made the episode not just a lesson in not getting what you want, but in acting like you should. As always when I finished one of our “counseling” sessions, I asked my daughter if she understood. She said she did, and I felt a swell of parenting pride. But as I walked away, she couldn’t help herself. “It’s still not fair.”

Her own little sister, Eva, routinely makes similar complaints about her older sisters, often relating to her hair, which really only started growing in at age 2 1/2.

“When is my hair going to be long? Will it be longer tomorrow?” And of course, “It’s not fair!”