Most of us mums and dads have been there one time or another: our child’s refusing to share a toy or piece of playground equipment, be that at school, at nursery, or on a playdate. You stand there awkwardly, either struggling to maintain conversation with the other child’s parent or just hovering vaguely in their proximity, trying not to meet their eye. Perhaps you coax your child into giving up the object in question so their friend can have a go.
The reason we do this is obvious—at least on the surface. Sharing is important. Right? It’s all about fairness and equity. Prevailing wisdom has it that only by encouraging your child to share will they learn to play nicely. But recently, well… I’ve become unconvinced.
What is the actual goal of teaching our children to share? Do we think it’ll help them fit in better? Are we preparing them to become well-adjusted adults, generous with their time and resources? Or is it more the case that we simply want to fit in ourselves, want to be seen as following social norms lest we come across as selfish, negligent, or narcissistic parents?
During their earliest formative years, children are learning how to meet their own needs. That entails coming up against obstacles, and navigating them within the confines of the mores of their milieu: at home, at school, at the park with unfamiliar children. But for me, sharing, lending and borrowing are too inherently complex for young children to understand. Toddlers don’t have the empathy to see things from another’s perspective, so forcing your child to share may not teach the desired social skills, but rather produce the opposite effect of causing a tantrum.
Now make no mistake: my intention in not telling my daughter to share is not to raise a spoiled brat—quite the contrary. Rather, I don’t believe that explicitly focusing on the sharing part of the conflict over a toy is the way to ameliorate the situation. So with that in mind, here are my 4 reasons for not proactively encouraging my daughter to share.
1. It’s more important to teach your child to handle conflict than to share
Rather than forcing my 22-month-old to share, I give her the tools to deal with conflict as and when it arises. The goal is simple: instil in her the ability to notice when another child would like a go with something she’s playing with, then ensure she relinquishes it of her own accord—and that she does so because she understands it’s the right thing to do (even if she hasn’t yet the cognizance to know why that’s the case).
On the other side of the coin, when my daughter sees a child playing with something she’d like a turn with, she’s now well equipped to not simply wander over and grab it without asking. She has learned patience without any hard empty phrases thrown at her—like “You need to share.” And as her language expands, I’ll be able to further help her develop a mature approach to conflict—no need for snatching.
2) With sharing there’s a risk of sending the wrong message
Rather than teaching your child to speak up for themselves, forced sharing may just convey some unintended messages:
- My parents are in charge of who gets what and when (not me).
- Crying loudly is a useful way of getting what I want.
- I should always give up what I’m doing so another child can have a go, no matter the context (such as how many times this has happened before, or the fact I’ve only just started playing with this toy).
3) You can instil self-regulation rather than unquestioning obedience
Children should feel they can play freely, be fulfilled by the experience, then give the toy to someone else of their own volition. By encouraging self-discipline and helping your child recognise when someone else’s needs outweigh their own satisfaction, you foster in them a deep sense of charity and generosity—even if the more fundamental trait of empathy remains undeveloped in their young mind. Kids make other kids happy, so by laying these foundations you ensure your child can make the right decisions in their own time, without supervision. This makes them a far more desirable playmate.
4) I’m teaching my daughter to advocate for herself
As your child learns to use their words more skilfully, they can work things out with their peers without recourse to a grownup’s intervention. They become less likely to need telling when time’s up or to let another child have a turn—because they already know. They act on that feeling, and they do so because they want to. So next time you feel yourself primed to jump in and tell your child to share—take a moment. Let them put into practice the skills you’ve taught them—and watch them learn to be kind, fair, and respectful right before your eyes.