Written by JM Randolph
When I became a custodial stepmom to five kids, I had zero prior child-rearing experience. I remembered my parents keeping things fair between my sister and me when we were young. My dad never came home with a toy for just my sister and not me. My mom didn’t let only one of us pick our favorite cereal. It followed that I would strive to be fair in all my dealings with my new family. At the store, I wouldn’t get just one kid a candy bar, I’d get one for each, even if they weren’t all with me. If one wanted a certain kind of potato chip, they all got to choose their own. Likewise ice cream or any other treat. It slowly dawned on me that this was not great for our finances. Whatever the tag read on the grocery store shelf, I had to multiply it by five. Not to mention there was now an appalling proliferation of junk food in the house. No matter who took ownership of which goodie, no one respected those boundaries. The early riser or the sneaky snacker got the treats, and the kid who thought everyone would share got tears. Keeping fair led only to keeping score. I remembered that fairness between my sister and me was marked not by a sense of peace and all being right with the world, but with a tally. We kept score; that’s why our parents tried to keep everything equal. Nothing against them, but it’s way easier to balance the scales between two kids than among five. So I changed my approach. If one kid asked for something special and I felt like getting it, I got it. I stopped buying four more for their siblings. I didn’t tell them they had to keep their treat a secret, but I didn’t allow them to be a jerk about it to the kids who didn’t receive one. When one of the left-out kids complained, “That’s not fair!” I’d reply with the parental classic, “Life’s not fair.” Then I’d point out the last cool widget they had all to themselves. Treating my kids with inequity gave me a lot of freedom. If I came across a gift that would suit one child perfectly, I didn’t have to find four more different-but-equally-amazing surprises for the rest. Soon enough, the kids themselves were on board with being treated unfairly. They finally started to see everyone would eventually get a turn. I took the two oldest girls to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and out for sushi afterward. None of the other kids would have viewed an outing like that as anything except a punishment. I surprised the youngest girl with tickets to her first concert: our shared favorite band, KISS. None of her sisters would be caught dead at that show. The middle girl has asked for a trip to the San Diego Zoo after high school graduation. I denied her original request to take her to a Justin Bieber concert. Hey, life’s not fair. JM Randolph is a writer, stagehand and custodial stepmom of five. She lives in New Jersey with her family and blogs at accidentalstepmom.com.