When Children Say ‘That’s Not Fair’
By Ann Pelo and Fran Davidson

From an early age, children develop feelings about what is fair or unfair – whether it’s other children not sharing toys, litter in the park or a homeless person they see on the street. Families and teachers can build on these feelings to help young kids think about fairness in increasingly mature ways. We can also help them develop an understanding of their role in the communities around them, and their ability to change their communities for the better.

We can help young children learn how to:

• interact with respect and kindness

understand and respond to one another’s feelings and ideas

• resolve conflicts

• divide materials fairly

Keeping our own values in mind and knowing that young children react differently than adults, we teach children how to respond when they are treated unfairly or hurtfully, and when they see someone else mistreated.

These lessons can come easily, because young children notice things that seem unfair, and they have strong feelings about them. Sometimes they see unfairness that is simple and personal, like a child being left out of a game or getting a smaller piece of cake. Other times, children find unfairness in a broader context, like a playground covered with broken glass or people being treated differently because of their skin color or their physical abilities.

As we listen to children finding examples of unfairness, families and teachers can also encourage them to build solutions to the problems they see. Maybe they will negotiate with other children to establish new rules for a game. Or they may take up a collection to help someone who is less fortunate, or write a letter to the mayor with help from a parent or teacher. Unlike adults, children don’t worry about whether a solution is realistic – they see a problem, no matter how big, and begin thinking about how to fix it.

By encouraging young children to respond to the unfairness they experience and witness, adults can help them learn many valuable things. Children will begin to see themselves as change-makers, and to understand that they can make a difference in the world around them. This builds their self-confidence, and helps them their learn to communicate their feelings with words.

Children who question what is fair or unfair are learning to think critically and independently. They also learn how to accept differences, collaborate and appreciate other people’s feelings, ideas and needs. These lessons lay the foundation for children to stand up to the kind of unfair, biased or discriminatory behavior that threatens our democratic values.

As children learn to think about these complicated questions, parents teachers can work together to talk honestly about their own feelings and avoid imposing grown-up perspectives on young children. As adults, we can talk together about our perspectives on an issue, and find ways to acknowledge and respect a range of opinions and beliefs. Even if we disagree, families and teachers together can design real-life activities that respond to young children’s feelings and ideas, and respect the beliefs of different families.

In fact, by building activities around ideas of fairness, we create opportunities for children to learn about the values of their parents, peers and teachers. Young children can learn about differences, how they can be respected and acknowledged, and how people with different perspectives can work together with respect and appreciation for each other. These are valuable lessons – for young children, and for all of us.


That’s Not Fair! A Teacher’s Guide to Activism with Young Children, by Ann Pelo and Fran Davidson, Redleaf Press, 2000.

National Association for the Education of Young  – provides useful tips and information to give young children a great start on learning.

Visit our Behavior pages for more ways to convert difficult behaviors into opportunities for learning and growth