Fairness is an important issue to early adolescents. Although middle school girls can be somewhat reactive at times just on general principle, it’s been my experience that the “it’s not fair” complaint typically stems from one of the following four perspectives:
1. Fairness is interpreted by many adolescent girls as “sameness” or “equality.” In fact, though, it is not fair to treat all siblings in the family the same, as if they were cookie cutters of one another, or to have equal expectations for 11-year-olds and 14-year-olds … that would be very unfair.
2. Some middle school girls have only recently discovered the fallibility of the adults in their lives. Some are disappointed by that discovery, some are empowered by it, but many go through at least a period of feeling they can be adults better than the adults themselves. This feeling can lead to a subsequent belief that they, the adolescents, are truly the ones qualified to make judgments, determine fairness, and “keep score.” Sometimes this is true; sometimes it is not.
3. Along with a middle school girl’s growing ability to think abstractly and make conjectures comes an ability to see the “grey areas” in many situations. Interestingly, those instances where she perceives the grey are often those where the adult is convinced it’s a clear-cut, black-and-white issue, or vice versa! This difference in perceptions can easily lead to questions of fairness.
4. Finally, for many adolescents, “That’s not fair!” translates as “You didn’t hear my side.” Girls who are wrestling with issues of right and wrong or fair and unfair wish to be heard. They may not end up any happier about the decision in question, but they are capable of a conversation that elicits understanding by all parties.
It can be frustrating to hear complaints of unfairness, and sometimes, of course, the only response available is, “You’re right. Sometimes things aren’t fair.” However, seeing “fairness” through the eyes of an adolescent may help you understand the source of the complaint and may, on occasion, help diminish the parental frustration just a bit. After all, that’s only fair.
This article was first published as a letter in the book Be the Line: Thoughts on Parenting an Adolescent Girl, a compilation of weekly missives written by Middle School Director Lynne Myavec during her decade-long tenure at The Agnes Irwin School. The book was published in 2015, by The Agnes Irwin School.