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The problem

Civilization is built on fairness, but sometimes trying to be fair can be a real burden. Fairness is the No. 1 bludgeon that kids use on their parents.

Nine-year-old Noah in the supermarket line with his father and his eight-year-old brother, Jacob:

"Dad, I want a chocolate bar."

"No, Noah, I'm not buying you a chocolate bar."

"But that's not fair, last time you bought one for Jacob."

"I don't like this whole thing about chocolate bars. I've decided, I'm just not going to get either of you chocolate bars anymore."

"But that's not fair. Jacob got one before, and now I don't."

The boys' father was uncertain. He thought, "Noah is right, it's not fair. I don't know."

Noah, sensing his father's hesitation, became even more insistent.

"Dad, you have to. You have to get me a chocolate bar. IT'S NOT FAIR!"

What do you do? How will they ever learn to be fair if their father isn't?

What not to do

Fairness is a high priority. But for many of the day-to-day child-raising situations it doesn't have to be the top priority. Often fairness can needlessly get in the way of being an effective parent.

"Oh, all right, Noah. I'm not going to get you candy. But you can pick out one of those little plastic toys from over there."

At which point Jacob went berserk.

"No. That's not fair. Noah can't just get something and I don't. You have to get me something too."

Trying to be fair can end up a nightmare.

What to do

You want to be fair. But you don't have to be fair all of the time about everything.

"Noah, you're right, it's not fair. But I'm not getting you a chocolate bar. You'll just have to go without."

"But you have to. It's not fair. Dad!"

How do you teach them fairness? If most of the time you try to be fair, they will learn fairness. But they also learn that fairness does not always win the day.

"My dad thinks fairness is important, but I guess he thinks it's not the most important thing in the world. At least sometimes." It's a complicated lesson. Fairness does not rule everything. But that's the way of the world – a lesson you want them to learn.

"But it's not fair. It's the Ten Commandments. They have to be fair."

Not always. Fairness does not have to rule everything you do as a parent.

Clinical psychologist Anthony E. Wolf is the author of six parenting books including I'd Listen to My Parents if They'd Just Shut Up. E-mail him your thorny questions at

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