By Renee Irving-Lee on 4 Feb, 2022

The concept of fairness

In my experience, there are three reasons why children have difficulty with the concept of fairness.

1. Children are egocentric by nature

Pre-schoolers still haven’t fully developed the theory of mind which is the ability to put themselves into someone else’s shoes. While they are sometimes capable of being empathetic, children still have a lot of skills to develop in relation to compassion, insight, sensitivity, and awareness of others. When children can only think of their own needs, it makes it almost impossible to understand how fairness works.

2.   Children are developing their cognitive reasoning skills

Sometimes they don’t have the ability to see logic and have difficulty thinking in ways that relate to space, position, area, and size. An example of this is when you pour the same amount of liquid into different sized cups or give the same amount of money in different amounts of coins. Children can perceive this to be unfair, even when it’s not.

3.   Children don’t understand the difference between fairness and equality

From my perspective, this is usually the biggest factor that hinders a child’s ability to comprehend fairness. Even older school age children have difficulty with this, if they haven’t learnt the difference between fairness and equality. Being fair simply means everyone gets what they need to succeed and being equal means everyone gets exactly the same thing (experiences, resources, time, play objects etc).

As adults, we know that it is impossible for all children to get equal amounts of everything all of the time, but children will often vehemently dispute this perception. In many cases, it would appear to the child that things aren’t fair – but in reality, things are not equal. For example, if an educator allows one child to always sit up the front at mat time and story time, all the children may see this as unfair. It certainly isn’t equal because not all children are getting the same experience. But what if that child had a middle ear infection that week, and had to be up the front so that they could hear properly?

How we can help children understand the difference between fairness and equality

Learning through stories

Stories are always a powerful way to explain important concepts and to initiate meaningful conversations. The picture book 'Fair is Fair' by Sonny Varela provides the perfect scenario for teaching the difference between being fair and being equal. It is the story of 3 zoo animals – a hare, a giraffe, and an elephant. The zookeeper feeds them according to their dietary needs, but the giraffe and hare decide it is not fair that the elephant gets so much more food than they do. The animals decide to share the food equally between them, and they soon discover the difference between being equal and being fair.

Other stories that explore the concept of fairness:

Learning through conversations

Words are powerful, and the language we choose to use with children can effectively solve problems, switch mind-sets, and change behaviour patterns.

The phrase ‘’that’s not fair’’ is probably the most universally overused phrase, so sometimes children can say it when they are really upset about something else. Some different ways we can respond, and initiate conversation are:

“Is it - not fair, or not equal?”
“It sounds like you are upset about xyz, let’s talk about that?”
“I know that doesn’t feel fair to you right now and its ok to be upset…”

And what if they are right, and things really aren’t fair?

Sometimes in life, things are not fair. We have to deal with illness, death, natural disasters, accidents, upsetting events, poverty and missing out. If something unfair has happened to a child, it’s equally important for us to acknowledge it. This is how they learn the difference between fair and unfair.

How can we draw attention to issues of equality and fairness?

There are many opportunities in the early childhood setting to discuss issues of equality and fairness. These discussions are often spontaneous and impromptu, but can be found around any learning experiences that involve:

  • Sharing toys or resources
  • Taking turns
  • Games with rules
  • Social play
  • Inclusion
  • Australian Indigenous history
  • Fair and unfair behaviour
  • Children with additional, health and medical needs requiring different resources
  • Sleep needs of different ages and different children
  • Different needs/resources in different rooms
  • Birthday celebrations
  • Different cultural celebrations

The concept of fairness and equality takes time to learn. The learning process, however, can be more valuable when children are supported by positive language experiences and meaningful conversations.

Further reading: 

Amplify: How to make a difference this Harmony Week

Very Well Family: How to teach children about empathy and prevent bullying 


Professional Development relating to this topic


About Renee

Renee Irving Lee is passionate about writing children’s books that promote life-long learning, social inclusion and improve self-esteem. She has always loved working with children, so writing for children has been a natural progression from her work as a teacher and educational freelance writer.

Her diverse background in education extends to teaching primary school-aged children, young adults, and children with special needs. Renee was awarded the Young Achiever of the Year Award by TAFE Queensland for her work as a dynamic, student-focused teacher who is highly respected for her skills, intellect and dedication. Renee was also inducted into the International Golden Key Honour Society while studying for her Bachelor of Education (Special Education) where she graduated with a Distinction.

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