It’s the childhood whine heard around the world: “That’s not fair.” It’s used in protest to a sibling being allowed to stay out with friends or have extra screen time, or in response to a classmate allowed to have extra time completing an assignment. You may be tempted to snap back that “Life isn’t fair,” and while that’s true, it’s more helpful in the long term to teach them the difference between fairness and equity. Because what’s equal isn’t always fair, and what’s fair isn’t always equal.
Adults can understand why sometimes the needs or circumstances of one person can outweigh the importance of making sure everyone gets the exact same amount of help or follow the exact same rules. A teenager should be allowed to stay up later than a kindergartener; it may not be equal, but it is fair. Fairness and equity are abstract concepts for kids, though, so it takes some coaching (maybe even a lot of coaching) from parents before they can fully grasp it.
Here are some exercises you can try at home to help them better understand the difference.
No eyeglasses for anyone
Some people receive more assistance because they need it—and just because they need it, doesn’t mean everyone should receive it. Barbara Gruener offers this exercise for teachers, on the Free Spirit Publishing blog, and parents can have a similar conversation at home to illustrate the point:
Start by using the eye-opening example of wearing prescription eyewear. After asking students if fair means equal (their typical response is a resounding, “yes!”), respectfully demand that everyone with glasses remove them because it’s not “fair” if some have glasses while the rest of the class doesn’t. This will challenge their thinking about fair meaning we’re all the same.
One Band-Aid for everyone
Another classic tactic is the Band-Aid lesson that challenges everyone in the family to think up a pretend illness or injury. Once everyone has chosen one, pass out one Band-Aid to each person to treat the injury—regardless of whether it’s a paper cut, a broken leg, or a bad head cold.
Huh, that’s not fair.
Who can reach?
Teacher Samantha Song writes for Better Kids that she has her own favorite exercise she uses in her classroom each year to drive home the difference between fairness and equity. She places a couple of items up on a high shelf and then calls up a taller student and a shorter one to retrieve the items. When the shorter student can’t reach, she asks the class to brainstorm ways to help them (pull over a chair, get assistance from a taller classmate, etc.). Song writes:
This nicely leads into a discussion of fair vs. equal. The two volunteers cannot have equal treatment, because that truly isn’t fair or even necessary. The taller child already has a leg up! *Ba dum pum* It’s evident to the class that they don’t need a stool or someone to help them reach. The other child, however, requires some accommodation to have an equal opportunity at success.
Equality has to do with sameness, just like in math. An equal sign tells us that both sides of the equation are exactly the same (3 + 2 = 5). Fair is different. Fair means everyone gets what they need, based on visible gaps in opportunity. And sometimes people will have different needs because we are unique individuals.
You can do this at home by directing a teenager or adult member of the family, as well as a younger, shorter child to try to reach the bowls on the top shelf of the kitchen cupboard. You’re giving them the same task, but you’re unfairly expecting the child to be able to reach the same heights as a grown-up.
Talk about equity versus equality
Now that you’ve worked through some basic exercises, you’re ready to talk about the difference between equity and equality. Although they might feel like the same basic concept on the surface, understanding the difference is key. Social Change UK explains it well:
Although both promote fairness, equality achieves this through treating everyone the same regardless of need, while equity achieves this through treating people differently dependent on need. However, this different treatment may be the key to reaching equality.
Referring back to the student example, fairness through equality would mean giving all students the same level of support. However, those who need more support beyond this initial level to succeed would therefore not have equal opportunities to those who do not.
Equality would be no one wearing eyeglasses; equity gives glasses to those who need them so they can see as clearly as everyone else. Equality is Band-Aids for everyone and items up on high shelves; equity is treating the individual’s specific injury and step stools that are used as needed. Even earlier bedtimes for small kids is about equity—their body needs more rest. And once kids start to understand the difference between fairness and equity, they are able to further develop their empathy for others.