'It's Not Fair!' — Teaching Kids The Difference Between Equality And Equity

by Amber Leventry
Originally Published: 
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Based on the number of times a day my children declare something isn’t fair, one would think they are the experts on fairness, also known as equity. But their knowledge is simply based on jealousy and sibling rivalry. They’re good at noticing when a sibling has something they want or has received more of something, but everyone having equal amounts of the same thing at all times is not what constitutes fairness. Whether my kids like it or not, they often receive different treatment and different belongings because the goal in the house is equity and not simply equality. As a parent of three kids who see everything as a resource, this is a tricky lesson to teach and can be even tougher at times to listen to their complaints.

Here’s how to help your kids—and you—understand the difference between equality and equity and why equity is better.

Some people think everyone should be given the same resources, and be expected to achieve the same level of success, and have access to the same opportunities. The problem with this way of thinking is that it doesn’t take into account that people have different needs and require a variety of accommodations to make sure they have the same opportunity to achieve success. This is the difference between equality and equity, and our goal should be to create equitable situations and not only equal ones.

To help your kids understand the difference between equity, or fairness, and equality, give them this example. If a teacher gives every kid in a classroom a bowl of ice cream with three identical scoops and a spoon, a kid may think that’s fair because everyone got the same thing. But one kid is lactose-intolerant and can’t eat the ice cream. And another kid has a sore tooth and can’t eat cold foods because it hurts. Everything provided is equal, but is it fair that two of the kids can’t enjoy the treat? No, but if the children are offered a different treat that doesn’t make them sick or add pain, then the situation is equitable. Everyone has the opportunity to enjoy the special occasion, even when their needs are different.

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Fairness, or equity, is making sure everyone has what they need vs. making sure everyone has the same thing. If we are to create equitable situations and work toward an equitable society, we can achieve equality. However, it’s not just kids who fight over resources and get greedy while stuck in a mindset that focuses on individual gains. People struggle to distribute wealth, power, food, and housing because they don’t want to give up their advantages, lives of excess, or what they think they have earned by hard work alone. They assume everyone has the same opportunity to work hard, earn money, and find “success.” However, some people need more help than others to have that same opportunity. We should be focusing on making sure everyone has what they need, not on what we are worried about what we think we’re losing out on.

When I went to college and needed financial grants to get there, the help I received did not take away from the ability for someone with financial security to also get to college. We didn’t start with equal bank accounts, but we both had the opportunity to get an education, because I qualified for help.

Some people get frustrated by this and are jealous when they see someone getting something different than themselves. They don’t think it’s fair that a resource they may label a “handout” is given to some people but not others. Another example can be seen with the COVID-19 stimulus checks. Some folks think everyone should get a stimulus check of equal value because they believe equal is fair. However, not everyone needs the same amount of money—or any—to improve their situation or to make it one that sustains their basic requirements. Is it really fair that someone with two homes, retirement savings, health insurance, and multiple vehicles gets the same relief package as a single parent who is struggling to pay rent? No.

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Nor is it fair that more systems aren’t in place to reduce discrimination based on sex, gender, race, and sexual orientation. If marginalized groups have more access to income, health insurance, and housing then the playing field would be more equal. And when everyone has what they need, then they tend to struggle less, are happier, and take care of each other because there is less competition and citizen rivalry and less crime. This is why Nordic countries topped the UN’s World Happiness Report. These countries are considered to be social democracies and tend to keep equity in the forefront because everyone has access to free healthcare and education.

Kids may claim unfairness when a student at school gets extra help or rewards for good behavior. They may think their younger siblings are getting more attention than they are, or are mad because an older sibling gets to stay up a little bit later. But what they are seeing and experiencing is fairness. In order for a student to get a quality education they may need different incentives or aids. Younger kids do need more help and should get more attention at times to be sure they are safe and taken care of. And an advantage of getting a little older means not needing as much sleep; just because the complaining child isn’t getting the same thing as their sibling doesn’t mean they won’t get to have the same later bedtime eventually.

Teaching our kids equity will build empathy and compassion for others. It will help them become less self-centered and look to help others in need. The goal in life is to be on equitable playing fields so that everyone can reach their full potential; in order to do that, some folks may get more help or differential treatment, but we can’t have equity if everyone is given the same resources all of the time.

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