Why fairness really matters in families

“Character is shaped by life experience and cannot be seen from the outside or from physical appearances. It cannot be judged by prizes and accolades. Nor can it be judged by age or culture. Character can only be ascertained from how a person lives and interacts with others.”

— Maggie Dent, Nurturing Kids’ Hearts and Souls (2005).


Let’s start with the Cambridge Dictionary definition of fairness that is ‘the quality of treating people equally or in a way that is right or reasonable’. Even as a little girl I was fascinated with the concept of fairness and of being just and reasonable.

Our world is in a state of massive change in so many ways and we can cope better with uncertainty if we are able to see others through a lens of openness and empathy – whether that be around culture, ethnicity, gender, age or social existence.

There is an appalling lack of fairness and consideration in much online interaction, where instead of questioning a person’s opinions, people attack each other.

I have written of the importance of teaching our children and ourselves about the importance of fairness for a very long time because it allows us to develop a depth of moral code that can really help right throughout life.

We are the only people who see the world as we see it and everyone else sees it in their own unique way.

To be able to create meaningful relationships in our homes, communities, schools and workplaces, we must know that fairness begins when we choose to understand how others perceive the world.

I once read an analogy that allowed me to fully embrace the concept of fairness. Two children were arguing over one orange and the parent, thinking they were treating each child fairly, took the orange and cut it in half and gave half to each. The children were not happy and it took quite some time for the parent to realise that one child wanted the skin of the orange, while the other child just want to eat the flesh. The parent realised if he had really listened to what each child wanted then they would both be happy, instead of getting ½ of what they wanted.


The link between fairness and chocolate

Dr Matthew Lieberman and Dr Naomi Eisenberger in their article “ The pains and pleasure of social life: a social cognitive neuroscience approach” (2008) explored how powerful fairness is through experiments. Firstly they discovered that being treated fairly, which also assumes respectfully, activates the same parts of the brain as having our basic needs met like eating, having a drink on a hot day or eating chocolate. Quite simply, being treated fairly activates the pleasure circuits of the brain.

On the flipside, the research discovered that social exclusion – which is the opposite to being treated fairly –  triggers the disgust circuit in the brain. So, when a person experiences rejection or social exclusion, they experience a form of physical pain.

Children who have poor attachment to their parents can struggle to connect with other people. This sense of pain may explain why it is so hard to get children to return to school after they have experienced a serious conflict that made them feel rejected or left out. This is also why friendship dramas can have such deep impact on both children and adults.

“If being treated unfairly activates the social pain and disgust circuitry, what does being treated fairly do? … In our evolutionary past, and to some extent still today, being accepted and valued by one’s group is important because it means access to critical resources for survival and thriving”

— Lieberman & Eisenberger (In Press).


We respond to how we are treated

These research findings validated what I had discovered intuitively that we respond to how we are treated. When we are shouted out, shamed or excluded, whether that be as a child or an adult, it really hurts. Social cohesion is a way of describing what happens when we treat others with fairness and respect. This can happen in families and it definitely happens in our classrooms. In my bestselling book Mothering Our Boys I explored a strategy for parents and educators to help boys when they make poor choices, usually very impulsively. Exactly the same process can work for our girls.

When kids muck up, the steps are as follows:

  1. Help them know what went wrong? (What was their intention?)
  2. Help them to make it right
  3. Next time?
  4. Then forgive and forget
  5. Acknowledge the valuable learning

This last step can be optional, however I have often found that it helped my sons to see that life is a long journey of learning and growing. Did I regret putting my finger into a light socket when I was 10 years of age? Absolutely. Did I ever do it again? No way.

These steps help the parent to understand what is happening from a child’s perspective rather than just assuming they had chosen to be bad or naughty. Often when they make poor choices our children just do so in the course of wanting to have fun. So we need to let them know why we get upset when they use all the shampoo as bubble bath or why jumping on their brother from the top bunk might not be a good choice!

Seeing the world through the eyes of our children is the secret to being the respectful, considerate parent you really want to be.

One of the most significant benefits I got out of studying neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) many years ago was an awareness that beneath every behaviour is some form of positive intention.

Sometimes a child may bite another child because they are feeling crowded and overwhelmed, and they’re trying to create some space for themselves. Sometimes in seeking serotonin, we eat too much chocolate, so that we can calm down and be nicer human beings.

Next time you approach a conflict with a young child, try to ascertain what it is they wanted to happen as a consequence of the choice they made. Sometimes a child will hit a child so that that child will stop hurting another child. The reasons they may give you will be very childlike and when we see through their eyes, we can often witness what they were really trying to do.

Here is another interesting thing I learnt many years ago (from Jack Canfield) that helped me be more capable of being fair and just as a parent and teacher.

E + R = O

What this formula means is that any experience or event, plus my reaction to it, creates the outcome.

So if a child spills their drink on the couch, or they push their sibling over — it is my reaction to this that will create the outcome. When you see the experience though the eyes of a child, and see what they were responding to or what need they were trying to get met, then how you respond, will often be more compassionate.

To be honest, much of children’s behaviour that annoys us as parents, is simply because we find it inconvenient or it interferes with how we plan the world to be.

It’s also sometimes because we haven’t dealt with our own ‘stuff’ and we’re lashing out at our kids in order to try to grab some sense of control. If you want to know more about being triggered by your children’s behaviours make sure you check out episode one of series 5 of my podcast, Parental as Anything.

Compassionate and respectful parenting allows both the parent and the child to be valued and respected. Next time you have a teachable moment with your child, even if it involves a spectacular tantrum, when you reflect back on that experience a couple of hours later after a nice cup of tea — ask yourself my three questions for compassionate parenting:

  1. Was that fair?
  2. Was that kind?
  3. What has that taught my child?


And if you are not happy with your answers simply plan a different response next time. There is no need to beat yourself up, or think you are a lousy or terrible parent or eat the whole family block of fruit and nut chocolate. You simply allow your higher brain and your heart to guide you to making better choices next time. By doing this we are treating ourselves with fairness as well as our children and the best way we teach our children anything, is by modelling.

The art of reframing

Reframing is the art of seeing things differently so that that your perception may change to enable you to respond more favourably in your communication. Okay so what does that really mean?

Let’s imagine you were driving around a roundabout in your car and a very inconsiderate driver cut in front of you and nearly wiped out the front of your car. What might be your first thoughts? Maybe you want to flip them the bird or yell expletives? The reason we want to make those choices is that we have made a very quick, spontaneous choice that that person’s behaviour was deliberate, it was threatening and it displayed a low level of consideration for us.

Okay, so let’s imagine a different response to the same scenario. What if instead of thinking about retaliation, you chose to have the thought — “Whoa, that person may have just come from a funeral home where they’ve seen a loved one’s body, or maybe they just got sacked from their job, or maybe their partner just told them they don’t want to be with them anymore. We can behave very erratically because we are distracted at such a time of intense shock”.

What is really interesting is that you really don’t have to work very hard to reframe how you see the world in moments like this. And imagining scenarios like these is no less realistic than thinking someone has cut you off deliberately — after all, you have no idea what is happening for that other person in that car.

I was blessed to have a near death experience when my children were quite young. My youngest was just over a year old when I almost died. When I came back from the hospital, I was so deeply grateful that I had not died, that all the minor annoying things about being a mum seemed to transform in front of my eyes. I had faced the prospect of never seeing my special beautiful boys ever again and I was so grateful that my mind had reframed how I saw my parenting role.

What is really interesting in the art of reframing is that the reframe does not have to be possible or probable — even incredibly ridiculous reframes tend to work.

If you choose to see your children as wise and capable, and are open to discovering how they see the world, the choices you make around your discipline techniques will automatically become fairer for everyone. Often explaining to the other sibling how another sibling may be seeing the world can be time-consuming, however you are really teaching them one of the keys to being a fair human and that is the art of empathy and the attributes of kindness and compassion.

Empathy, kindness and compassion can be learned

Being able to tune into other people is a key aspect of empathy. Even though you can teach your child the nuances of the social dance of getting on with others like using manners, taking turns, sharing and asking for things in a clear kind way, you cannot teach your child how to be emotionally warm, thoughtful and how to comfort a person in distress, or how to be naturally curious about others.

Your children have to learn these attributes themselves through the multiple experiences they have with other children and humans; with their key caregivers, especially their parents, being their starting point. This is why treating our own children with fairness, kindness and compassion really matters.

Kindness is the capacity of an individual to act from a place of genuine concern for oneself and others, and it includes the qualities of empathy, compassion, generosity and consideration with the intention of making a positive difference in our world.

Being kind is a choice made from the belief that every action influences others, and it honours our deepest, invisible motivation to have value and worthiness in our lives.

Compassion and kindness have the power to touch deeply and this often ripples through the world around us; showing kindness invites others to be caring in turn. This is a universal reality that has great power. Many people have been touched by the kindness of others after the global disasters especially during the pandemic and in the recent massive flooding parts of Australia that we have witnessed.

Kindness was the most powerful pathway to teaching, that I knew in my own home and in the classrooms where I taught adolescents for 18 years. Seriously, try some small acts of kindness towards a child who is challenging you and notice what happens.

Quite simply, it is more difficult to be unpleasant to a person who has been kind to you than to a person who has treated you harshly or unfairly!

When we are kind, we don’t take advantage of our power, or of other people’s vulnerabilities. Instead, we seek to comfort, encourage and strengthen those around us.

The strong sense of belonging that comes with being treated with kindness is tangible and powerful. To hear this in action, take a listen with your kids to the One Small Act podcast, hosted by 12yo Jack Berne, founder of Fiver for a Farmer, produced in conjunction with The Kindness Factory.

Kindness removes the distance between individuals from ‘them’ or ‘us’ to ‘we’. Treating others as we would like to be treated is an ancient way of building character and human understanding.

John Medina in his book Brain Rules for Baby explains the astonishing skill called ‘deferred imitation’, which develops rapidly and which research shows exists in a 13-month-old child who can remember an event a week after a single exposure. When we know this, we can appreciate how important it is to model kind, caring behaviour in front of our babies, toddlers and young children. If we have never been treated with kindness or fairness, we simply will be unable to treat others the same way.

The effects of being treated fairly and with kindness have been shown in studies in neuroscience, to make a significant difference to the way the brain integrates, and subsequently, to how individuals feel and behave. When we are treated with kindness, it allows our nervous system to relax and makes us feel safe, valued and connected. Stress and distress have significant effects of how children and adults interact with the world. If you are interested in learning more about how stress impacts children’s behaviour please check out Dr Mona Delahooke’s wonderful new book for parents Brain-Body Parenting.

In a way, our world has become nastier and crueller, especially in the digital world. Incredibly violent videos, fames, films and pornography have become more prolific than I’m sure anyone ever imagined. This virtual world has given people with poor self-regulation and emotional immaturity the opportunity to lash out at other people in nasty and vitriolic ways while remaining anonymous. Some of these people become trolls. Unfortunately these badly behaving individuals are creating a skewed vision of society.

The world is full of good people who live caring and responsible lives in their communities and who practice fairness in their everyday lives. It just seems the ones with the loudest voices are those who lack the emotional and social competence to be decent people. Maybe it is time for a revolution that models fairness and compassion.


“The best way to inspire your children to develop into the kind of adults you dream of them becoming is to become the kind of adult you want them to be.”

— Robin Sharma, The Greatness Guide (2006).





Image credit: ©️  Довидович Михаил / Adobe Stock – stock.adobe.com