“We treat everybody the same.”
It was an innocuous comment really. Assuredly said with the best of intentions.
So why did it get under my skin?
Let me make a few things clear before I begin to blur the common definition of fairness. I do think children need consistency and that they do rise to our (appropriate) expectations. That said, however, I don’t believe that “fair” means everyone gets the same thing. To me, “fair” means everybody gets what they need.
It’s certainly easier to work with absolutes. And it’s certainly a challenge to ascertain individual needs and address them appropriately. There’s plenty of room for error. But there’s also a better chance that you can effectively get to the heart of a child when you see them as that. A child. Each one. Not a cluster of children, but an individual.
Perhaps my personal philosophies regarding the whole child, the individual learner, implementing developmentally appropriate practices, and working within the zone of proximal development are to blame.
Maybe it’s years of experiences working with children seeing their uniqueness and trying to meet individual needs.
When I taught first grade, for example, I had two or three children in particular who struggled more than your average first-grader when it came to sitting at the rug. A one-size-fits-all philosophy would suggest that anyone who can’t sit at the rug like everyone else earns the consequence of sitting with their head down at their seat, spends some extra time inside during recess, or takes a time out.
“We treat everybody the same” seems to suggest that you either sit at the rug like everybody else or you receive a negative consequence. But I saw it differently. These kids weren’t like everybody else. The task of sitting knee to knee with their friends on the rug was particularly challenging for various personal reasons. Why would I treat everybody the same when they weren’t?
Our solution? Whenever these children came to the rug, they could choose to sit in their chair at the rug (near the back so it wouldn’t get in the way). Sometimes they chose to sit on the rug “like everybody else”. Sometimes that worked. Sometimes it didn’t, and all I had to do was ask if it would be easier to bring over a chair. They either worked harder at this challenging task and succeeded or they used appropriate accommodations to help them succeed.
Perhaps the most ingrained experience I’ve had with “treating everybody the same” was when I worked as an alternative language aid for new immigrants in an elementary school. It was a position I enjoyed, but toward the end of the year, it was my job to administer the standardized tests to some of the students I had worked with. Some had been in this country for only a few months, and yet, because we had to “treat everybody the same” I was not allowed to give directions to them in their own language.
It killed me to look at these bright children looking blankly at these papers. They were bright kids. But we couldn’t treat them any differently. That wouldn’t be “fair”. “We treat everybody the same.”
The truth of the matter is no one treats everybody the same. And no one should. We don’t expect children in wheelchairs to climb the front stairs, we don’t ask children who are blind to read from the same books as the rest of the class, and we don’t insist that deaf children take oral exams.
We’ve learned to recognize the special needs of children and try to meet them where they are and lift them higher. But doesn’t everyone have a special need? Some are less obvious and may take great effort to discern, but it’s the same reasoning I use for all children.
Some children need more personal space, others need more social scaffolding. Some struggle with anxiety, others with impulsivity. Some need more attention, others need more privacy. We owe it to the children we love and teach to know them well enough to find their special needs and give them the support they need. Even if that means treating them differently.
Fair doesn’t mean everyone gets the same thing. It means everyone gets what they need.
How do you balance the concept of fairness with individual needs?
This is something we’ve been hovering here at home for a long time. With three boys they believe since they are in the same family that everything should be the same. It’s been on my husband and I’s, ‘driving us batty’ list so we have to do something about it now.
Sometimes we explain. Sometimes the explanation is; it is what it is. We try to show them how to support each other differently.
To be honest I find educational settings blanket response of fairness the hardest to comprehend because it’s just not true for most of them and like you pointed out rightly so in many instances.
Mandi @ Life...Your Way says
YES!!!!!!!!!!! I’m pretty sure my children are going to engrave “Fair doesn’t mean equal” on my grave because I say it so often! I promise to be fair, but I don’t promise to make sure they are always treated exactly the same way — in education, in discipline or in special opportunities and treats!
Amanda @NotJustCute says
Good mantra, Mandi. It wouldn’t be so bad to have that on your headstone would it? ;0)
Diane Freedman says
I love it! I’m absolutely going to start using “Fair doesn’t mean equal” Thanks!
Love and Lollipops says
You are writing my very thoughts :). Yes, yes yes !! I wish every teacher, every Mom could read this post. I know I’ll be linking back to it at some time.
Just to add, I have administered many standardized tests over the years and have struggled with the very same issues. I always find myself asking these questions. “Why am I testing this child? What is the primary goal of doing the test? Is it simply to get a score – so that the bigger system is happy and can place this child appropriately, or is it to better understand the unique child in front of me and by so doing assist them effectively?” This has helped me “know” when to bend the rules a bit as such.
Amanda @NotJustCute says
It’s such a challenge, isn’t it? I know there’s a purpose to standardized testing, and I do believe in the need for assessment, but there are times when the “standardized” aspect overlaps good sense and reason.
I totally agree with this. I have two very different boys; one is in school and the other is in daycare. I am constantly saying things like, “Yes, but you got a party at school, and he didn’t.” or, “Yes, but I send a snack to school with you, but he doesn’t get to pick his snack at daycare” . . They are starting to get it as they get older, which I think is very gratifying.
As a teacher I am fortunate to work at a private high school right now that focuses on differentiated instruction. Right now in one of my classes I have half the students working on creating plays from Dr. Seuss books, and the other half working on a 20 min. play with lots of lines to memorize. They are all happy that they can work on something at their level, and they are all excited to work on their projects, even though its not technically “fair”. Would it be fair to make my student who has memorized the entirety of The Lady of Shallot and reads Shakespeare for fun work on Dr. Seuss, when she wants something challenging? Would it be fair to make my student who is dyslexic or working in his second language to memorize Oscar Wilde? I don’t think so. But they feel that they have been treated evenly because they all have satisfying projects to work on.
Diane Freedman says
I am beginning to struggle with this concept with my almost 4 yr old boy/girl twins. They are so different and deal with parameters and consequences very differently. Being asked to sit in his room and play quietly is the ultimate punishment for my son and a joy for my daughter. My son will do just about anything if promised an M&M and my daughter has looked me straight in the face and said, “I don’t like M&Ms today anyway mom.”
Up until now we’ve been able to modify rules and consequences to fit the child and situation, but they are starting to notice that “Lola didn’t have to…” and say things like “Mom, Jackson just… now he has to …” I’m not sure how to handle it.
Suzita @ playfightrepeat.com says
Such a helpful reminder to parents and teachers alike! It seems to me that the more we include comments about our individual differences in our everyday conversations, in the classroom and at home, the more we move away from the “one way for everyone” message. My 2nd grade daughter just had a classmate with Aspergers syndrome over for a play date. The play date had some challenges (and I stayed nearby to give extra help to the girls when they needed it). But afterwards my daughter and I had a good conversation about what we can learn from her friend, because this friend sees many things differently than we do. Step by step my daughter seems to be learning that it’s often those quite different from us who can teach us the most.
On the parenting front the book The Five Love Languages of Children, by Chapman and Campbell has helped me remember the ways my three kids are different. This book got me to see that each of my kids takes in love and appreciation differently. It’s a good reminder that a back rub will make one child’s day, while kicking the soccer ball with another child is more what he needs.
The idea that everyone should get the same is the simplest form of fairness/justice (and one we may have fostered when we’ve encouraged sharing), so it’s not surprising that that’s where young kids start in their understanding of it (usually around age 5, when they become so obsessed with it that they take on the role of the “fairness police”!). But we adults can help them think more deeply about it, the way you have in this piece, Amanda. Recognizing that how resources or benefits are distributed should (morally speaking) be connected to individual needs is a pretty complex social concept to grasp but kids are often more capable than we give them credit for! I hope this sparks some great conversations in homes and classrooms!! Thanks, Amanda!
Leanne Strong says
Here’s a way we can do it.
Mom/Dad: Savannah, what if I gave Jack Pokemon stuff for his birthday, and then I gave you Pokemon stuff for your birthday that same year? Would that be fair?
Savannah: yeah it would be.
Mom/Dad: but you don’t like Pokemon. Do you? You like stuff like Barbies, Strawberry Shortcake, Doc McStuffins, My Little Pony, Disney Princesses. Would it be fair if he got toys he would play with and you didn’t?
Here’s another way you could word it.
Mom/Dad: Ryan, what if one year you and Emily both got My Little Pony stuff as holiday presents? Would that be fair?
Ryan: yes, it would be.
Mom/Dad: how would that be fair? You’re not really all that into My Little Pony and she LOVES it. Would it be fair if she got stuff she liked for her birthday and you didn’t?
I like that comparison!
so so ture. loved it. thank you.
“I don’t believe that “fair” means everyone gets the same thing. To me, “fair” means everybody gets what they need.”
Yes, yes, yes. Thank you, Amanda.
Mandi Stiles says
I’ve been saying this for years, “Fairness is everyone getting what they need.” I just wish more teachers and administrators got this concept.
I love this article! I am a preschool teacher, and we are always saying “everyone. has a special need”. Whether it is something obvious, or a mental thing or just that her Daddy is deployed right now and she needs some extra time to herself in the morningseveryone is special. everyone has special needs. To make children conform to a mold is to do them a disservice and hurt them in the long run.
Great article, thank you..
(sorry for typos, I am on my phone and my lunch break is over lol)
Aunt Annie's Childcare says
Hah, yes. This has been my mantra since I first heard Miraca Gross say it at a workshop on gifted/talented education. You’ve expressed it very well!
For some illustration of how this can work with older kids, and with gifted kids, you might like to read this old post of mine on the same topic- http://auntannieschildcare.blogspot.com/2011/09/on-being-consistent-and-fair-or-not.html
I completely agree that it’s not only the ‘special needs’ children, as identified by some piece of paper, who have special needs!
Thank you. This was such a well written post on something everyone working with children should understand. I know I need the reminders as well . . . so thank you.
Shelley Simpson says
We say this a lot my center (at least the majority of us!). While it may seem easier to have the same expectations for every child or to expect them to all do the same thing or be in the same place developmentally, it does no one any favors. We try to work with the child where they are and move them forward a step at a time. It takes a lot of time and effort to get to know each child as an individual and to figure out what works for them but in the long run, it is best for everyone. And our children seem to accept it, if they even notice.
Joan Stewart says
Reading all of this reminded me of a one of the most interesting moments I have had when working with ADULTS. Facilitating a workshop for “high-potential” employees from around the globe for a multi-national corporation on the topic of working effectively across cultures, we were doing an exercise on values. Each small group had a list of “values” that they had to put in order of priority. The most intriguing discussion happened in the small group comprised of, among others, a Polish man and a black South African man. This was in the late 1990’s. The value they were arguing about was “equality”. The South African thought it was an extremely high priority as it was something greatly missing from much of his experience in South Africa, and much sought after. The Polish man wanted to throw it out of the value group completely. In his cultural experience,”equality” meant everyone received the same treatment, goods and services – and all of it was sub-standard as a result. In the end I had them refocus on what “equality” meant for them now, in the corporate culture in which they were working. It was an eye-opening discussion for all of us though!
I really found your post enlightening in terms of communicating with my 9-year-old, who is very focused on what is “fair”. Thank you!
Fascinating comment, Joan. This post, and your comment, reminds me of an article I once read that said almost all political differences boil down to different philosophies about what is fair.
Thank you, Amanda, for your hard work on this blog – always food for thought. Your ideas help me to be a more thoughtful, intentional parent.
Amen! I taught with Teach for America in very high need schools, and struggled with this. I would always tell people that I felt like I was in an emergency room with one person bleeding out and another with a scraped knee, but I was supposed to provide them all with equal treatment. I know the one with a scraped knee still needs something, but, for heavens sake, the other one won’t make it if they don’t get some serious help!
Hi Amanda, living in a country where poverty abounds and thousand of children suffer malnutrition, for me fairness has a social meaning, which implies everyone should have equal opportunities. Treating everyone “the same” not only bypasses individual needs but potentials too.
Amanda- I feel like you are speaking my words and sentiments! Thanks so much for being a beacon of sane and rational thoughts as a teacher and parent. This very minute, I have a boy in my JK (four year old program) who makes choices each day to either sit on the rug, or on a chair…not as a punishment, not as favoritism, but because it empowers HIM to decide how to do his best learning at morning meeting or story time. That is what it is all about: helping everyone be their best selves as they grow. Sounds fair to me!
This has been my mantra. I strongly believe your every word! The challenge we face is the guidance of strong early childhood leaders willing to guide staff to education and professional development to strengthen the understanding of developmentally appropriate practice.
Love and Lollipops says
I shared the link to this great post on my “Love and Lollipops” Facebook page.
I fell into the equal trap when my twins were babies…
As a teacher my philosophy on fairness was the same as yours but somehow, faced with sharing myself our between two tiny, unhappy, babies that idea flew out the window and I became obsessed with equality. They should get the same amount of food, the same amount of clothes, the same amount of time in my arms… While it was hard on my it worked well for them when they were tiny, but as they grew up we all learned the hard way that fair doesn’t mean equal, because we are not all the same, not even my identical twins.
Thank you for this article. I agree with everything said whole heartedly. I believe that you need to treat each child as the individual they are and allow them to be successful so they can gain a high sense of worth. I also believe that allowing them to be successful also allows them to develop coping strategies that they can carry with them throughout their life.
What I am struggling as a teacher is having this philosophy and working hard with my students to allow them to develop this strategies and then them moving to another class and the teacher won’t allow them to use those strategies. For example in my Pre-K class if a child is having a hard time sitting still on the rug, the child and I work out a action plan that will help them be successful based on whatever reason they are struggling with sitting still. But one of the expectations for when they get to the various feeding kindergarten classrooms is that they can sit still for instructional periods for 20 mins. Then the strategies the child has developed which work for his/her temperament is no longer acceptable.
Any suggestions on how to maintain the philosophy above with those contridicting beliefs.
Carla Rogers says
Thank you for such an interesting and insightful post. As a mother of 2, and psychologist to both children and adults, this post is very timely for me as we are 1) dealing with the concept of fair between the girls at home and 2) dealing with the concept of ‘life is not fair’ from many adults in my clinical practice.
I must admit that when dealing with adults we often bandy around the comment “well life isn’t fair” so I like your notion of ‘fair’ not meaning ‘equal’ so much as getting what everyone needs. Having said that – let’s face it, life isn’t ‘fair’ sometimes when you even define it like that?
As adults/parents/teachers I think you make excellent points about ensuring that each child is treated as an individual and gets their needs met. A difficult concept to adopt in the educational setting but one I’m sure we could strive for a little more than perhaps is done. And it makes me think that it expands beyond the educational system or the sibling subsystem at home. When children are playing together and a situation arises that does not seem fair – this is a perfect time to discuss with them the concept of ‘need’ versus ‘equal’. And perhaps to discuss the reality that life is in fact ‘sometimes not fair’ perhaps?
Dr Carla Rogers
Here & Now Health
Thank you, Mandy, again for this inspired post! I’m using it in my RS lesson coupled with Jeffrey Holland’s “Laborers in the Vineyard”. How grateful I am that God is “fair” and doesn’t treat us all exactly the same!
I’m so glad you shared this today…the timing is perfect for me on a personal level….the fact that my kid’s need to be treated differently, NOT the same when it comes to, well, a lot of things. I was struggling with “Am I being fair?” and you just confirmed what I was feeling! Thank you!
Leanne Strong says
When I was younger, my parents never said that it wasn’t fair if someone didn’t get what they needed, but they did say stuff to my brother and me like “it’s not fair that you get 3 brownies and Ethan only gets 1,” or, “it’s not fair to Leanne that you get to choose the movie and she doesn’t.” I have a pragmatic language delay due to Asperger Syndrome, so I thought my parents meant fairness means everyone gets the same thing, or the same amout of something. I didn’t realize that they actually meant fairness means everyone gets what’s appropriate for them. Like if I saw my parents watching over his behavior less carefully than they would have watched over mine when I was his age (he’s only 2 years younger than me), I would think it wasn’t fair because he wasn’t getting what I would’ve gotten at his age.
Here are some activities you can do with your kids to teach them the true meaning of fairness.
These activities are good for kids of all ages.
Activity 1. You get some kids together, and have them each pretend they have a different need. Maybe you have some kids pretend they’re thirsty, some pretend they’re cold, some pretend they’re hot, and some pretend they’re hungry. But you give them each a glass of ice water or other cold drink.
Activity 2. You get some kids together and have them all pretend they are injured in a different place. But you put a bandaid in the same place on each kid, even if it’s not where they said the injury was.
Activity 3. You get some kids together and have them pretend they each have a cut. Maybe some pretend they have a small cut, and some pretend they have a huge cut. But you give them each the same size bandage to put on their cuts (and some cuts are so big the person needs a cast because a bandaid just won’t be enough).
These types of activities would be more appropriate for middle or high school (or maybe even lat elementary school) age kids. Kids this age can understand the difference between getting what you want and getting what you earn better than a 6 or 7-year-old can.
You get some teens or preteens together and have them pretend you’re their parent or guardian, and they want more screen time. You tell them that if they can keep up with their homework, they can have more screen time on the weekend. Some of them keep on top of their homework and some don’t, but you give them each an extra hour of screen time on the weekends.
Activity 2. You get some teens and preteens together and have them pretend they’re inmschool and you’re their teacher. Some of them work hard to keep on top of their schoolwork, pay attention in class, contribute to class discussions, show up to class on time, never leave before the bell rings (unless it’s for reasons that aren’t in their control), show respect for the teacher. Some of the kids only do some of that stuff (or only do that stuff some of the time), and some kids rarely do any of that stuff. But you give them each the same grade.
For teens and preteens, however, just explaining or teaching them that fair doesn’t always mean everyone gets the same thing might not be enough. They might still think it’s not fair because they didn’t get what was right for them, and now their younger sibling is, or because their older sibling got what was appropriate for him/her when he/she was their age, and now they’re not. So for kids this age, you might want to do a little more explaining about a different concept. If Jordan (let’s say Jordan is 11) is complaining about Alex getting away with more than s/he could have gotten away with at Alex’s age (let’s say Alex is 9), ask Jordan about the first time s/he did something (first time on the school bus, first day of soccer or dance class, first year at summer camp, etc.). Ask if s/he knew what to expect or what was expected of him/her. Ask if s/he knew how to do all the moves right away of if it took a while to learn. And then tell Jordan, “and just like that, you are my first-born child, so when you were his age, I didn’t know what to expect from kids that age or how to handle it. But with Alex I know more about what to expect, because I had already been through some of it with you.” If Emily (let’s say Emily is 12) is complaining about Aaron (let’s say Aaron is 16) being allowed more freedoms when he was Emily’s age than Emily is now, do the same as you would for your oldest child. Ask her about the first time she did something. Ask her if she knew what to expect or what was expected of her. Ask her if she knew the moves right away or if it took her a while. And then tell her, “well, Aaron is my first-born child, so when he was your age, I didn’t know what I was getting into. But with you, I know a little more about it, because I’ve already been down that road with Him.”
You can also say something like, “because you, as the oldest child in this family, set an example for the younger kids.”
What a great list of activity ideas! I may have to use the bandaid example soon!
Leanne Strong says
Just another suggestion. With middle or high school age kids (or maybe even late elementary school age kids), you can probably explain that fair doesn’t always mean treating everyone the same, it means making sure everyone gets what they need or deserve. With kids this age, you can add that it also means treating other people in a way that doesn’t show bias, partiality, prejudice, etc. But a preschool or early elementary school age kid might have a harder time understanding this concept than an older kid would. With kids that age, you want to keep it as short and sweet as possible. So with preschoolers and early elementary school age children, maybe you can explain that fairness means being nice to everyone. Being nice to everyone sounds more realistic than treating everyone the exact same way.
I have Asperger Syndrome, and because of that, I have difficulty understanding what other people say vs what they actually mean. When I was younger, my parents would say stuff to my brother and me like, “Leanne, it’s not fair that you get 3 cupcakes and Ethan only gets 1.” But I only remembered my parents and teachers using the phrase, “it’s not fair,” in situations where someone got something different from the others, or where someone got more or less than someone else.
By the preteen or teen years, most kids have realized (or are starting to realize) that the explanations on fairness the adults and older kids in their lives used with them when they were younger isn’t always correct. They have realized that fairness actually means each person gets what he or she needs to be successful and happy. When I was in high school, however, I still thought fairness means everybody gets the exact same thing, because I did not remember anybody ever teaching it to me any other way. If I saw my parents let my brother (who is only 2 years younger than me) get off easy something that would have earned me a good talking to when I was his age, I would think it wasn’t fair. But it wasn’t because I thought my brother needed or deserved stricter discipline. It was because it didn’t look the same as what I would have gotten when I was his age. I thought, “I would have been reprimanded for that when I was his age! In order for things to be fair, he should be reprimanded for that, too!” I also felt like my parents (particularly my dad) loved my brother more than they loved me. Being the middle child never had anything to do with it, because my parents only had 2 children. Being adopted is out of the question, because my brother and I are both our parents biological children. Single parenthood and stepparenthood are also out of the question because my parents were always together and living in the same house when I was younger (I’m 22, and they’re still together and they both still live in the same house my brother and I grew up in).
One time at college, I was reading a book in the college library. It talked about special needs in mainstream classrooms. It mentioned how some teachers won’t give certain accommodations to students with special needs, because they think it wouldn’t be fair to the other students in the class. But really, it’s not fair to the child with special needs.
If you have a young child or work with younger kids (especially if you have one of the Autism Spectrum or who has pragmatic language difficulties, but even if you don’t), I suggest replacing the explanation that, “fairness means everyone gets the same thing,” with another explanation like, “fairness means being nice to everybody.” This is especially important if you want to reduce the number of times a kid says, “that’s not fair,” just because something is not exactly equal.