How Preschoolers Perceive Fairness

A look at preschoolers' unique perception of fairness – and how you can help your child develop a healthy concept of fairness.

Parents of preschoolers know the drill. No TV until the blocks are picked up? Being punished for hitting your brother? You guessed it: “That’s not fair!”

If you’re starting to think your kids don’t understand the meaning of fair, you’re right, a new local study says – at least, not the way older kids and adults do.

The University of Michigan found preschoolers are more likely to punish an entire group of people even if only one individual in the group was at fault.

“A teacher who rewards or punishes a whole class for the good deed or misdeed of just one student is more likely to be seen as fair by 4- to 5-year-olds,” researcher Craig Smith explains in a press release, “but as less fair by older children.”

Tyke mentality

It might sound like preschool-age kids are harsher, but researchers say they just have a different idea of what’s fair. They may even be motivated by compassion, since the kids studied didn’t want to single out one child for discipline.

That goes with what Tammy Arakelian, an early childhood consultant with Oakland Schools, has seen in her experiences with preschoolers.

“I think what this shows us is how relationship-focused young children are and how, when we look at using rewards and punishments with young children, we need to take a different approach than we might with older children,” she says. “Young children want the best for their community and, while we think what they may be doing is unfair to someone else, that’s not what the child is thinking.”

Fostering fairness

Parents can help their kids develop a healthy concept of fairness by working through conflicts using a six-step process designed by the HighScope Educational Research Foundation, Arakelian says. Here’s how it goes:

  1. Stay calm and stop any hurtful behavior.
  2. Acknowledge your child’s feelings. You might say, “I hear you’re thinking that this is unfair,” or “You look really upset about this,” Arakelian suggests.
  3. Gather more information on what happened.
  4. Restate the problem – “so the child knows he or she has been heard.”
  5. Ask for ideas on solutions and choose one together.
  6. Be prepared to give follow-up support.

When parents consistently use this strategy, Arakelian says, kids learn to think through the steps on their own in conflicts with peers or siblings. Consider making a list of “house rules,” too, with the children’s involvement.

No matter the conflict, discussion is key. “Understand that the child is determining whether something is fair or not based on the information that child has or the view that child has,” Arakelian says.

Art by Mary Kinsora

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