Spend 10 minutes with group of toddlers and you’ll soon hear an adult admonish, “You need to share!”
Little ones routinely offend social norms: They don’t ask. They grab. They whine. They impressively arch their backs when they don’t get something they want. These behaviors are offensive to us sensible adults! So, to help them become socially adept, we teach them to share.
Sharing has become the pinnacle of virtuous toddlerhood whereby all children get a turn, there are no tears, and peace is preserved. And since no one wants to be the guilty parent with the offending child, moms and dads routinely apologize to their child’s playmates (and caregivers) on behalf of their unsharing tot. Their words are layered with more than a hint of parental shame: She’s not good at sharing. We’re working on it.
And work on it we should—perhaps by considering that forced sharing is not the way to go.
Some parenting bloggers and authors have begun to question our instincts on sharing. Psychologists admit that forcing young kids to share, or even mandating that each child have a turn with an object, “actually delays the development of sharing skills.”
I want to raise children who are generous and reflect God’s generosity with us. I’m certainly not advocating a morally empty, child-centric upbringing, motivated by a desire to keep my kids away from disappointment or conflict. Yet I have resisted admonishing my toddlers to share. Why? Because I believe that we might make more progress toward raising generous and selfless children if we thoughtfully consider the appropriate developmental stages for such lessons.
Before they are 3 or 4 years old, children do not have a strong concept of possession. They think, “If I’m holding it, it’s mine.” Unable to understand the difference between possession and ownership, they struggle to comprehend sharing. Sharing isn’t just giving another child a toy when they ask for it, but the ability to willingly relinquish that which is ours for the benefit of another.
Ordinarily, developmental stages cannot be altered by a nagging prompt or the threat of a timeout. When we insist that toddlers share, we are expecting them to act beyond their age. As children grow older, their ability to comprehend ownership and follow social expectations (such as manners and taking turns) makes sharing a much more teachable (and necessary) concept. I don’t just want my children to comply with the behavior of sharing, but to embody the virtue behind it: selflessness.
I suspect that some of our concern over a child not sharing may have something to do with our own anxieties. Occasionally, as parents we feel embarrassed when our children act “selfishly,” because it can reflect poorly on us. When it comes to sharing—as with all virtues we desire to instill—let us not view our children as mere extensions of ourselves by expecting them to behave in ways that are not yet appropriate for their age.
Part of “training up a child in the way he should go” (Prov. 22:6) is understanding that our children are distinct individuals—helping them understand the way they should go—separate from us as parents. Training a child is a long-term investment, with returns often not seen for many years. In these early stages, it can be hard to separate their behavior from our egos.
When parenting norms dictate that we take a toy away to let another child have a turn, or when other parents suggest that forced sharing will teach a child to share, it’s difficult to insist that our young one go on playing. Still, our goal cannot be to merely keep the peace between toddlers—a near-impossible feat whether or not they’re sharing! Mandated turns with an object can actually impart to both the giving and the receiving child a flawed understanding of what sharing is. A request (or demand) of “Share!” comes to mean, “You have to give him the toy because he wants it.”
It also disrupts the learning a child experiences through extended play with a particular object. As Maria Montessori would say, a child’s play is her job. By interfering so that another child can have a turn, we truncate her ability to concentrate and sustain play for an extended period of time. (Granted, for a toddler this is going to be very brief anyway.)
Spats over a toy can lead to discussions about sharing and modeling from parents or older children, who can explain why they choose to share. It can also be helpful to prepare a child for a sharing opportunity before a play date. When my son was a toddler, before a friend came to play we would talk about how he could be a good friend by providing toys to play with; conversely, I would prompt him to consider how a decision to not share might affect his friend: “If you don’t share Mr. Potato Head, what will your friend play with?”
This encouraged him to think about his friend’s perspective, not just his own. It also prompted him to think about the effects of not sharing: How would that make his friend feel? Why would the friend even want to come play, if all the toys were off-limits? These questions let him consider making an independent choice to share—something that is missed sharing is required.
I also try to model appropriate sharing, which at times means saying, “No.” For example, when one of my children tries to eat off my plate, they will occasionally remind me that I need to “share” with them. When we require anyone to divulge something simply because another child wants it, we might unknowingly be teaching them a lack of boundaries and implying that they are expected to give whatever, whenever. Sharing is not to be used as a tactic to get what we want from someone else.
Ultimately, we all want to raise and nurture unselfish children. As Christians, we hope to see our children “do good” and become “generous and ready to share” as a result of their love of God (1 Tim. 6:18). I’ve come to believe that cultivating a spirit of selflessness in kids is best done with developmentally appropriate expectations, which introduce children to the joy we find when we chose to share our blessings with others.
Rachel Boldwyn teaches Communication and English at Hope International University. She has been published in The Christian Leader and Patheos, and has a forthcoming article in The Atlantic. Her children, ages 7 and 4, have taught her a great deal about selflessness.
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