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The Folly of Fairness

June 15, 1996

By the time your children are ten to twelve years old, they should have developed the wisdom and skills necessary for good parenting. For several months now, our twelve-year-old daughter Shoshanna has been insisting that we address an issue that is disturbing to her. She finds this to be the most common problem of the small children she baby-sits. She sees the same traits in many of her own peers. She says, “Daddy, write and tell them that life is not fair.”

There is a universal tendency to try to make life fair. “You had your turn, now it is mine.” “You already have two balls and I have none, so you should be fair and share with me.” “Daddy gave Johnny one, so Suzy should get one also.” We tend to think of legislated fairness as equality, when in fact it is inequality. This is so ingrained in us that we equate fairness with justice. The communist system is built on a principle of forced fairness. In contrast, the American system of government is based, ideally, on justice.

strong in spirit

Pure fairness is as unlikely and as undesirable as making all mountains the same height. It is unnatural and can only be achieved through forced injustice. When it is a rule handed down by “Big Brother” it will never be carried out with benevolence on the part of the one being stripped of his abundance, nor can it be received with thankfulness on the part of the one expecting legislated equality.

Jesus gave a parable that speaks about fairness and our attitude toward it:

Matt. 20:1-15
1 For the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which went out early in the morning to hire labourers into his vineyard.
2 And when he had agreed with the labourers for a penny a day, he sent them into his vineyard.
3 And he went out about the third hour, and saw others standing idle in the marketplace,
4 And said unto them; Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatsoever is right I will give you. And they went their way.
5 Again he went out about the sixth and ninth hour, and did likewise.
6 And about the eleventh hour he went out, and found others standing idle, and saith unto them, Why stand ye here all the day idle?
7 They say unto him, Because no man hath hired us. He saith unto them, Go ye also into the vineyard; and whatsoever is right, that shall ye receive.
8 So when even was come, the lord of the vineyard saith unto his steward, Call the labourers, and give them their hire, beginning from the last unto the first.
9 And when they came that were hired about the eleventh hour, they received every man a penny.
10 But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more; and they likewise received every man a penny.
11 And when they had received it, they murmured against the goodman of the house,
12 Saying, These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day.
13 But he answered one of them, and said, Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny?
14 Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee.
15 Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good?”

The men that had worked all day for the agreed price of one penny recognized it was not fair to pay the same penny to those who had worked only one hour. They began the day expecting only one penny for the full day’s labor. They had indeed been treated justly, but not fairly when compared to the others. Twice, the master of the vineyard said, “I will pay you what is right.” The unfairness of pay is nonetheless called “right.”

When our children complain of unfairness, it is because they feel they should have received more in respect to what someone else has received, exactly as these men in the parable. The response of the employer—;typifying God—;was to define their desire for equality as “evil.” He vindicates his unequal actions by pointing out that it is lawful for one to do as he pleases with his own possessions. Their heart became evil when they coveted the increase of their neighbor.

When children complain of inequality they are being covetous, as seen by the fact that they never complain when they are on the receiving end, only when they are left out. If the parents give in to this complaining, they are rewarding their children’s lust.

To cater to this equality syndrome is also to convey a very false concept about life. In the real world, what is mine is mine and what is yours is yours. If my neighbor has three cars when I have none, I can expect to walk. If he gives me a ride, I will be thankful, but I do not feel it is his duty to share. If he were forced to share, it would be impossible for me to have gratitude toward him.

Just this summer one of my younger daughters went canoeing with a visiting family of four teenagers. The youngest was a boy of thirteen. His mother, not having confidence that he could survive a spill in the swift water, told him to wear a life jacket. His three, older teenage sisters were not so required. On the way to the canoe rental, as they stopped for gas, the boy went inside and called his mother, complaining of the unfairness of his sisters not having to wear life jackets. The mother relented to his pitiful appeal and told him that since he had to endure the discomfort of a life jacket, they would have to also. After all, it was only fair. As they were preparing to leave the gas station, he came out gloating over his successful appeal to fairness. And parents wonder why their children don’t like each other!

One of the girls got on the car phone and spoke to her mother about their distaste for wearing life jackets. The mother again relented and said that none of them had to wear a life jacket. So the kid got his way after all. His mother obviously felt that he needed the jacket to insure safety, but she was forced to step back from her better judgment based on an assumption of fairness and equality.

If he had been my kid, every time he complained I would have put another life jacket on him until he looked like a giant, orange flower floating down the river. He would have had so much buoyancy that if he had fallen in the river he would’t have gotten wet. The next time I told him to wear a life jacket he would have put it on so fast that those watching would have looked around for a tidal wave.

When the thirteen-year-old boy won the fairness contest over the life jackets, do you think his sisters and the others present found him endearing? Do your children like each other, Mom?


This assumption that fairness is the “golden rule” seems to be universal. We see it on all sides. I noted an occasion when a mother was about to prevent her older teenage daughter from going with her peers because the younger sister was not also invited. The mother, finally allowing her older daughter to go, consoled the younger child by promising to take her someplace special to make up for the inequality.

Again, it is common to hear a small child complain to his mother, “They ran off and left me.” The mother then scolds the older child, telling him to wait on his younger, slower brother. Does it cause the older boy to like the little brother who is allowed to cramp his more aggressive style of play?

This indulgent demand for fairness begins at the earliest age. You can know you have already cultivated self-centeredness in your children when Grandma must buy gifts of equal value for each grandchild in order to keep feelings from being hurt. Trying to keep equal accounts, whether in things, privileges, or discipline, is not wise. It trains children to believe they have the right to weigh and balance, to demand equal share, or to veto the good fortune of another. They are turning selfishness into a childhood occupation. Evil covetousness is being rewarded.

Parents are missing one of the greatest opportunities to teach their children to rejoice in the good fortune of another. The men of the parable who worked all day should have rejoiced that those who worked only one hour received as much as they. If they had been the one to work only one hour, they would have rejoiced. Their demand for fairness was pure covetousness. To give in to that demand is to cultivate your own “Entitlement Program.”

It should never be our intentions to show favoritism, but circumstantial inequality is not only just but essential to the very foundations of individuality. Some are naturally tall, while others are short. Some are gifted in many areas, whereas others appear to be gifted in little. One farmer receives rain while another suffers drought. One is born into a family of opportunity while another is born into social bondage. One gets a promotion while another loses his job. Many run the race, but only one takes first place.

Premeditated inequality, which is what occurred in the parable, is often most appropriate. The Bible tells us to value the other person above ourselves. That’s not equality. It’s inequality in favor of your neighbor.

Remember, our goal for our children is not to make them happy by immediately gratifying their natural lusts; we want to build character. Children do not yet have a mature capacity to make wise value judgments. It would not be wise to provoke a child to wrath by deliberately showing preferential treatment. But it is equally unwise to seek equality by seeking to avoid inequality where it naturally occurs. For instance, if you are at a garage sale and come across a garment or toy suited to one of your children, it would be perfectly appropriate to buy for the one and not for the other. To deliberately seek equality is to send a wrong signal. The child who receives nothing should be able to rejoice in the good fortune of his brother. He would not feel that his mother loved the other more. He knows that the inequality is purely circumstantial. If one child is invited to participate in an event with his friends, and the other is not, it would be extremely unwise to attempt to make an offering to pacify the child left behind. It would be fine to take that opportunity for just the two of you to do something together, but not as a bribe for good attitude, nor as a consolation for his losses.

If a child is left out of play because the other children don’t like him, it would be injurious to publicly take his side. He should learn to be likable. He must earn the right to be included in social events. Children will readily isolate a jerk. Protective parents, defending a child’s rights, create super jerks. When he doesn’t get his share of attention, time, things, or whatever, don’t cater to his selfishness by becoming gravely sympathetic and sensitive to his feelings. Lighten up and show indifference to his feelings. Briefly and curtly, as you turn to walk away, say, “Stop your whining and find something to do, or I will give you a job to take your mind off of it.” You might add, “When you get bigger, you will get to go places also.”

One caution: We occasionally meet parents or stepparents who clearly do not like one child and so favor another. They express their preference in gifts and discipline. The children all know that one is despised and another is preferred. These parents may use what has been said to justify their ongoing vendetta against the rejected child. This kind of stupidity is not born of ignorance, but rather of meanness of spirit. Parents who are so blinded are not likely to discern the difference between just inequality and selfish preferential treatment. May these parents see the pain they are causing before their rejected child becomes a reject of society.

But if you are the average parent, you readily see the evil in deliberate preferential treatment. On the other hand, you may never have considered that your attempts at fairness were actually unjust and counterproductive in terms of character building. As a result of your renewed understanding, your future responses will be different.

When your child gets knocked down, don’t reward his whining of unfairness. Teach him how to get up and walk away with dignity. If the other children run off and leave him, teach him how to organize play that will cause them to want to be a part of his activity. But never make your child the unwelcome tagalong of despising peers. When your child digs a well, and they take it away from him, teach him to dig a better well in another location, and God will bless him with better water. When rain falls on his neighbors’ crops but not his, teach him how to irrigate. When his wages are lower, teach him how to manage his finances. When someone else gets the job, teach him how to start a company that provides better services. If he has fewer gifts, teach him how to expect nothing and to make little into abundance. Rather than whine for equality, teach him how to give until others are blessed above himself. If Christian principles are not good enough for our two-year-olds, will they be good enough for them when they are twenty? Cultivate a Christian worldview when they are young, and when they are old they will not depart from it.

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6 comments on “The Folly of Fairness”

  1. Years ago I saw a preacher illustrate the parable shared here. He called up all the children in the congregation before they were dismissed to Sunday school and asked them if they would all like some money. He went from child to child and gave most them between $0.25 and $1. When he got to the last two children, a brother and sister, he first gave the boy $5. He was instantly happy and gloating about how much he had received but that was all shattered moments later when the preacher turned and gave the boy's younger sister $20! All the boy's joy was turned into horror and dismay. The parents stepped up and removed the boy, the preacher told the parable to the children, said a few words about it to them, dismissed them and went into his sermon. Every time I read that parable I can't help but remember that really funny illustration of human nature and the ungratefulness that is bound up in our hearts.

  2. Thank you for this. I have struggled with how to deal with this area with my kids. Seeing the situation in light of this makes it so much more clear what is going on in their hearts.

  3. This concept has been a special challenge for us, having twins. It seems natural to want to treat them the exact same way. This article clarifies much for me!