Have you ever been at a play date, or in a public play place when the inevitable happens? Two kids want the same toy. Both moms feel obligated to force their kid to share. After all, that’s good parenting, right?
I don’t think so. I write bearing good news: you don’t need to force your kid to share with mine.
Sometimes my toddler will approach a new friend and try to yank a toy out of their hands, which is normal toddler behavior. I intervene and tell my baby, “No thank you; not your turn,” and hand it back to the original kid.
Some parents feel obligated to tell their child, “You need to share!” meaning, “Hand over the toy,” just because my kid decided it was his turn. And when a child grabs a toy from my toddler, there may be an expectation that I will make my toddler share right then and there.
But that’s not how sharing really works, is it? Realistic sharing is more like taking turns. Your baby has their turn, then when they lose interest (which generally happens fairly quickly with little ones), my baby has his turn.
Sure, there are exceptions. If one kid has been hoarding the toy for a while, it might be nice if the parent uses a distraction technique to free it up. And at a certain age (my seven-year-old comes to mind), some respectful taking of turns can be expected and encouraged. Fostering generosity and compassion in kids is important. But coercing a kid to give up a prized possession, whether new-found or well-loved, is not the way to instill such values.
Forcing your child to share immediately when someone asks for their toy teaches them to hand over their belongings indiscriminately, even if they’re still using them, even if they’re engrossed in them, even if they’re busy learning. It interrupts their focus and concentration. It puts their needs second, instead of first, and everyone deserves to have their needs put first sometimes. Giving under duress isn’t the same as giving out of the desire to be generous, and it doesn’t help teach children why taking turns and being generous are virtues.
Being on the other end of it, not expecting other kids to immediately share with my kids teaches my children patience. It teaches them that taking turns is important, inspiring an atmosphere of equality, where everyone of every age will get their turn at some point. We can teach our older children further patience by encouraging them to give little kids a turn first, since their brains are less developed and younger children have a harder time waiting.
We can help our children understand the importance of giving, generosity, and compassion as their brains continue to develop along with their ability to empathize. The reason a toddler might have a distress tantrum at the thought of sharing isn’t because they’re spoiled or possessive or materialistic; it’s because they’re children with limited impulse control and emotional regulation. As they get older, we can help them develop empathy by explaining how their actions affect others, by relating their own experiences to those of others, and by modeling generosity in our own behavior.
We can also teach our older kids that sharing isn’t mandatory; for instance, my seven-year-old has a couple of toys he has deemed “too special” to share. This is an approach respectful of personal autonomy, and the truth is, I don’t automatically share either. I do share a lot, but I certainly have possessions that I consider too valuable (monetarily or sentimentally) to hand over to the kiddos. And that’s okay too.
Instead of enforcing a compulsory sharing tactic, know that not all of us parents out there are expecting automatic sharing, and we respect your child’s right to have some quality time with their toy of choice. There are a lot of ways to teach a child empathy— forced sharing does not have to be one of them.
When thinking about how sharing feels or what it looks like, try taking this from an adult perspective. Say you were curled up reading a book on your favorite spot on your couch (we all have a favorite spot), and your partner comes over and says they want to sit in that spot, with that book, with that blanket. If you were a child being forced to share, you would have to get up from your comfortable spot, hand your partner your book, give them the blanket, and walk away. You would probably throw a temper tantrum in there for good measure because you were just forced to stop what you were doing even though you were thoroughly enjoying it, simply because someone else said they wanted what you have. As an adult, you wouldn’t stop what you were doing though- you might tell your partner to buzz off (and give them an, ‘Are you nuts?’ look) and request that they let you finish your book in the 0.5 seconds you have of alone time before one of your children kamikaze dives onto your lap.
This doesn’t mean you can’t teach your children the importance of sharing as they grow. We can help our children understand the importance of giving, generosity, and compassion as their brains continue to develop along with their ability to empathize. The reason a toddler might have a distress tantrum at the thought of sharing isn’t because they’re spoiled or possessive or materialistic; it’s because they’re children with limited impulse control and emotional regulation. As they get older, we can help them develop empathy by explaining how their actions affect others, by relating their own experiences to those of others, and by modeling generosity in our own behavior.
How To Help Your Child Share Organically
In short, there are a few ways you can both teach your child the empathic side of sharing all while not forcing them to share:
- Do not make your child give up a toy, game, or other activity simply because someone else wants it or takes it.
- Do not ask other children or expect parents to step in and their child share with yours- let your child know that they cannot take another person’s toy, game, or activity. They must wait their turn.
- Don’t give up something you are using or stop immediately with what you’re doing when your child asks for something. This helps to teach your child patience and to wait until someone is done with whatever they are doing or using.
- Make some toys “unsharable”- Some things are just too special to share with others and that’s ok. You can let your child decide of a toy can’t be played with by another child.
- Set a timer for popular toys. Kids commonly will do what is called “monkey see, monkey do.” They only want what another kid has simply because the other kid is playing with it or using it. In this case, or if a child is taking a long time with a toy or activity, set a timer so that after a little bit, the child relinquishes the toy or activity so that others can enjoy it. This helps to teach them that although they love using or playing with something, that others should be considered.
- Teach your child empathy in other ways. Sharing isn’t the only way to show a child that they should be considerate of others’ feelings and desires. Simple acts by reminding children that others are waiting on them when you’re running late to something, reminding them to offer their friends a snack or a drink when they come over for a playdate, or checking on a friend when they get hurt are all great ways to teach empathy.
Do you make your kids share?