It’s not fair!’ is a commonly heard exclamation by young children. It is perhaps the most common cause for fights among siblings. But when we try to look at the situation from our adult point of view it might seem very fair. Is a child’s concept of fairness different from that of an adult? How does a concept such as the one of fairness develop in young children? Within a series of two blogs, I will attempt to answer these questions, looking at two influential developmental theories.

freeimage-5929189-webA toddler’s idea of fairness
Whenever I hear a kid say ‘it’s not fair!’ in a situation that does seem fair enough to me, I remember an incident from the daycare center I used to work at.

Many of the kids were – as always – playing with the train tracks when one of them started crying. I walked over and asked him what was wrong. He told me that another kid, a big five year old, took his toy train and now he had none. Apparently all the other wagons were being used by the other kids, and the culprit in question was now owner of three of them. As I was not sure what had happened I decided not to punish anyone and teach a lesson in fairness and sharing instead. I asked the kid with three wagons whether the other boy could have one, because he had three and the other kid had none. He did give the third wagon away, but then started crying. I was confused, had I missed something? Then he told me how it was not fair, because now he only had two wagons and he wanted three! I tried to tell him that if anything, it was not fair to the other boy because he still only had one wagon and this guy had two, but my efforts were in vain. He was not yet ready to see fairness as a concept that relates to everyone in the situation, his concept of fairness only involved himself.

The clue of the difference between our beliefs about fairness in this and many similar situations lies within the development of a ‘Theory of Mind’.

Theory of mind
When a child is born he believes to be at the center of the universe. There is no recognition of other people’s needs and wants, of their unique individuality and thoughts. If anything, the child believes everyone wants, needs and thinks the same. When the child becomes a toddler, she becomes more aware of the world around her. She starts realizing other people are different and have their own ‘minds’ which are separate from hers. This understanding that other people are different and have their own needs, wants and thoughts is called theory of mind. The development of a theory of mind is a process that takes several years, starting between the second and third year and not entirely finished until the end of preschool.

The concept of fairness develops in combination with the theory of mind. At first, when the child is the center of his own universe, him having everything he desires is the only fair he knows. If a young child wants something, say a stuffed animal, it seems very fair to him to have the animal even if someone else doesn’t. After all, he believes others want the same thing, thus they must want him to have the animal and not someone else!


With thanks to ~Picturesbyclay

The concept of fairness becomes more complex over time. By the end of this process, usually around 6 or 7 years of age, children seem to think fair is when each person has an equal share of something. No longer does the child they believe everyone thinks and wants the same, and he understands now that others want things for themselves too. Realizing that this is not always possible, children this age start looking for the best solution which keeps everybody as happy as possible. Of course, it can still be difficult to understand if something is actually fair when the child has not learned division yet, and even though the child may know sharing equally is fairer than not sharing, he might not always want to act accordingly!

Equality is fair
After children have developed a theory of mind, they are no longer the center of their own universe. They no longer think it is fair if they have everything they want and they now understand that others have wants and needs for themselves. Children of around 6 or 7 years old understand that sharing equally is fair although they might not always be happy to do so. And who could argue with that, don’t we all have something we wouldn’t want to share with anyone?

Yet, adults still have a more complex concept of fairness at this point. Each having an equal part is not always seen as the fairest solution. Concepts like ‘an eye for an eye’ are history and today we have social services giving away money or goods for free to some whereas others have to work and pay for it. Many people believe this is fair, considering that those who benefit from social services have nothing to begin with. Another important developmental theory seems to play a role in this later development of the concept of fairness. Read more about this in my next blog!

This post was originally published on my old website, Aug 19th, 2013.

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