“it’s not fair”

“It’s not fair.”

If you spend time with kids, you probably hear those words a lot. And for adults, it’s easy to respond with “Life isn’t fair.” But if your kid is growing up with privilege, that response is problematic.

It’s problematic because when a privileged kid says “it’s not fair,” what they almost always mean is “I’m not getting what I want.” So if an adult responds with “life’s not fair,” what the kid hears is “You’re not getting what you want, and that’s not fair.”

That response teaches privileged kids to see fairness only through their own eyes. To ignore the real injustices that exist in the world, or, maybe worse, to see their own inconveniences as equally “unfair.”

So if your privileged kid says “it’s not fair,” acknowledge what they’re feeling, but challenge their meaning of “fair.”

Here’s what I tell my 4-year-old when she says “it’s not fair”:

You’re not getting what you want. But that doesn’t make it unfair. Fair is when everyone gets what they need, and when everyone has the same chance to get what they want.

It seems pretty obvious that privileged kids – and privileged parents – have a broken sense of what’s fair. Last week’s college admissions scandal revealed that dozens of celebrity and CEO parents cheated to get their kids into “top” colleges – by paying for fake test scores, fake learning disabilities, and even fake athlete profiles.

But the kids in those families weren’t just innocent victims of their parents’ crimes. George Caplan, one of the fathers named in the indictment, described how he (and other affluent parents) tried to game the system of legal accommodations for students with learning disabilities. Caplan arranged for his daughter to be evaluated for a learning disability and then coached her to “be stupid” during the test. Having a diagnosed learning disability would qualify Caplan’s daughter for a variety of accommodations, including extra time on tests. Not just on the SATs but on every test she took in high school and in college. And that extra time would give Caplan’s daughter a chance at higher grades and higher scores. Caplan’s daughter knew she didn’t have a learning disability, but she played along. And she got what she wanted in the end – a spot at a top school.

As Shamus Khan’s research shows, the kids of celebrities and CEOs have long had a broken sense of what’s fair. But they’re not alone. Plenty of mundanely privileged kids – the kids of lawyers and doctors and even college professors and teachers – have a broken sense of fairness, as well.

As I describe in my book, middle and upper-middle-class white kids see themselves as above the rules. They demand support and attention far in excess of what’s fair or required. They break rules with impunity. When they get caught, they try to talk their way out punishment. And they often succeed.

They succeed because of the power of privilege. Because teachers and school administrators are afraid of what privileged kids (and privileged parents) will do if privileged kids aren’t allowed to win the game.

And to that, I’d say “it’s not fair.”

Cross-posted on parenthoodphd.com

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