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Keeping Things Fair

I have superhuman powers. Not of the cape-wearing, building-leaping sort  -- what good is that to a mom, anyway? No, what I can do is glance at the individual macaronis on two plates of macaroni and cheese and announce to my sons with absolute conviction that their helpings are exactly  -- exactly  -- the same. And I can pour two identical-to-the-milliliter glasses of orange juice and set them down on the table at the precise same moment.

Only sometimes, my powers fail me. Like yesterday: When I set down those two glasses of juice, there was a distinct double beat.

"Mommy?" said George, 5. "You didn't put them down at the same time."

I looked at him.

"That's not fair," he said.

"Well, hmm," I said, playing for time. "Do you know which one was set down first?"

"No. But..."

"Oh, so then it is fair!" I said confidently, as if this were just one more of those rules of the adult world that he'll get the hang of sooner or later.

Fairness is a big deal in my family, as I'm sure it is in every family. In fact, arguments about it crop up constantly. "Mommy? Mommy?" my boys clamor for my attention. "Which one would be faster, a rocket-powered garbage truck or a jet-propelled fire truck?"

"They're equally fast," I say, as if I had an advanced degree in the subject.

Why do I bother being evenhanded? Despite my best efforts, I'm accused of being unfair (or of conspiring to make the world unfair) a dozen times a day. Like when one of my boys finishes putting his toys away and the other still has trucks parked all over the living room. Or when I take their baby sister out, leaving them behind with a sitter  -- even if I'm taking her to the pediatrician's office. And, of course, it happens whenever I put food on the table.

To hear them tell it, I'm failing miserably in my attempts to be fair. But I'm not discouraged  -- yet. For one thing, I don't define fairness the way my kids do. To a child, "fair" translates loosely as "whatever I want." Used in a sentence, it goes like this:

"Can I have some ice cream?"

"No."

"THAT'S NOT FAIR!!!!"

I suspect that kids learn early on to use the F-word because it triggers a primitive need in a mom to make things right for her offspring, either by engaging in fruitless further discussion with a temporarily insane toddler or by simply conceding.

But surely kids are wiser than they seem. They have a kind of inner emotional barometer that registers things they can't articulate because they don't have the language skills yet. When the world feels off-kilter, they simply react: They have frequent tantrums, perhaps, or become clingy and whiny.

And when the balance is off with a brother or sister, they take it out on each other. Any disparity in the meting out of parental stuff  -- love, attention, orange juice, toy trucks  -- can play itself out in sibling rivalry, and can leave wounds that last a lifetime.

Celia Barbour, a mom of three, lives in New York City and has written for Gourmet and Martha Stewart Living.

The just mom

I'm convinced that being fair matters. But that doesn't mean I know what to do about it. Every mom I know worries about being impartial, but no two of them go about finding a solution in quite the same way.

My friend Elizabeth, for instance, concentrates on spending the same amount of one-on-one time with each of her two kids, figuring that a mother's energy and attention are the most valuable things she has to give to her children. Another mom I know sends her daughter to a private school and her twin sons to a public school. For her, being fair means doing what's right  -- for each child and for the whole family  -- at any given time. "You evaluate their needs as they come along," she says.

But whether it's measured in mommy time or school tuition, being evenhanded is ultimately about keeping things in balance. Balancing the needs of one kid against another, balancing punishment with crime, and even balancing out life's inevitable pendulum swings by being extra kind to the child who's having a hard time.

Like my friend Frances, for whom fairness these days is all about compensation. "Life isn't very just for Sophie right now," she says of her 3-year-old. The baby, Plum, has just turned 1 and has learned how to knock down her big sister's blocks, tear apart her books, and lay claim to her dolls. "All day long Sophie hears, 'Plum's little, she's a baby, she can't help it,'" says Frances. "I'm trying to balance it out by making sure that there are some perks to being a big girl." So she has tea parties with Sophie and takes her on special outings.

Day-to-day fairness

Still, it's a mistake for parents to get too involved with ironing out every bump of fate their kids encounter. Life bestows its gifts unevenly. One kid gets the looks and the brains, and the other gets...a knack for the clarinet. Since when is that just?

Since forever, actually, if you define "fair" as the dictionary does  -- impartial, unbiased  -- and you believe that such innate disparities are a matter of random chance. As my friend Leah says, "Fair doesn't mean same."

What I hope to accomplish is a home environment that feels fundamentally trustworthy and secure, where day-to-day difficulties and disputes are resolved according to a set of guidelines, not according to whoever's faster or louder or gets there first. I'm trying to eliminate vigilante justice, in other words. Kids have a keen sense of right and wrong, and they like it when the rules are simple and sensible  -- abstract, neutral things, like gravity or traffic lights, that have nothing to do with their own mood or personality, or their mother's. (Grown-ups like it, too.)

To that end, I recently instituted a new policy in our house. Hereafter, I announced, there will be "George Days" and "Henry Days." Anything the boys used to quarrel over  -- who gets to climb out of the bathtub first, who gets to push the button in the elevator, who gets to decide which park we go to after school  -- is now resolved according to this system: On the odd-numbered days of the month, George gets to decide; on the even ones, Henry does. (And during months with 31 days  -- when there are two odd days in a row  -- the first is Mommy and Daddy Day.)

Guess what? My boys love it. They're more relaxed now because they're no longer constantly on their toes looking for an opportunity to be first, or complaining that the other isn't being fair. They even enforce the rules themselves when we forget to. If I suggest to Henry that he climb out of the bath first on a George Day, he'll decline and offer his older brother the towel.

Of course, my husband and I love it, too, because our brains have been fogged by five years of child rearing, and we were having a terrible time remembering who we toweled off first yesterday. Plus, our home is so much quieter now.

Okay, you may be thinking, but doesn't this turn our household into a little police state, a rule-bound place where human qualities like empathy and compassion are lacking? Far from it. By reducing the bickering and quarreling, I actually have more time and energy for the important things  -- like talking, coloring, playing, and reading.

Is that fair? I don't know. But I can tell you this: It works. It gives my kids a choice, and it gives me a way to resolve their disputes without getting dragged into the messy, chaotic middle of them every time.

In other words, it's fair to me.

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