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Dear Care and Feeding,
My partner and I have been living together for a year now. She has a 4-year-old daughter. I have an 8-year-old daughter. Our custody arrangements mean we have both of them together about a quarter of the time. By and large they get along, and each enjoys having a stepsister.
Our issue is around giving them things. My child earns an allowance based on chores, and I let her spend the money as she sees fit—if she wants a toy and has the money, she can buy it. Otherwise, she has to save her money. My partner’s child isn’t old enough to earn an allowance, so my partner will just buy her child a toy. My child, in her 8-year-old hyperconcrete sense of fairness, then becomes jealous.
My partner is not extravagant; the gifts are modest, and they don’t come with great frequency. She’s also not exclusive, and sometimes when she gives her child something, she will also give my child an equivalent gift. This is becoming a point of contention, however, because now my partner feels she can’t buy her child something without worrying about my child’s feelings. I would love for my child to develop a more nuanced understanding of fairness and equity, but she’s 8 and her feelings seem developmentally appropriate and understandable to me. But I don’t feel great about telling my partner how she can or can’t give things to her child. Any input about how to work together on this would be appreciated!
—Life’s Not Fair
I say this with all due respect, but I think the problem here is that by organizing your behaviors around your daughter’s feeling of being wronged, you are letting a child manage a situation that should be managed by adults. I get why it feels unfair to her that her little sister is getting free gifts and she’s not. But that’s a childish way to look at the situation—which makes sense because she is, it seems, a child. A more adult way to look at the situation is: One kid is getting her parental benefits in the form of an allowance and the other is getting her parental benefits in the form of toys. And it’s fair. And that should be the ethos that drives your action here.
You can remind your daughter that when she was 4, she was getting her toys hand-delivered to her as well. And you can even tell her that when her stepsister is 8, she will have an allowance too. But 4 is too young for that responsibility. You can gas her up a little bit about how being a big kid means taking on some of that extra responsibility of managing your own money like a grown-up. Your wife does not need to buy a toy every time for her and I might even argue that by doing so, she’s giving unnecessary credence to the child’s argument. You know that the arrangement is fine and fair, so be adults and stick with the fair arrangement.
I might also suggest that even though the kids seem to be adjusting nicely to the situation, this may be one of the places where your daughter is funneling her emotions about bigger life changes into something seemingly small. Nothing huge to do here, just flagging it in case you need a reminder to be gentle when dealing with it. Let her have her feelings—which are totally fine and appropriate—but continue to do what you, the adult, know is right.