Sharing – or as I’ve most frequently seen it practiced, demanding that a child surrender something he is using the instant another child expresses interest – is a playground custom that I just can’t get on board with.
(pausing for gasp of horror)
Am I trying to raise selfish little monsters with no regard for the feelings of others?
Believe it or not, no.
I deeply want my children to be generous, thoughtful, and kind; qualities that can only truly be fostered when a child has ownership of his actions. There is a great amount of joy in giving, for both the giver and the receiver, but that experience is nullified when the gesture is forced.
It feels a bit like insisting that a child say, “please,” “thank you,” and “I’m sorry,” rather than allowing her to say those things in earnest once she’s fully come to understand them. Without the intention behind them, the words are as meaningless as the act of “sharing,” merely echoes of the courtesy and manners that we want so much to teach.
Every “thank you” that my children utter is that much more meaningful to me because the words are a genuine expression of appreciation, not ones they’ve learned to parrot under duress.
Sharing is the same. I want my children to have the freedom to delve deeply into their play without the fear that they will be interrupted with a demand to “share.” I want them to have the opportunity to notice the needs of those around them and I want them to know the joy of meeting them.
I also want them to be on the other end of that equation, understanding that a desire does not guarantee instant acquisition. I want them to learn that there are countless ways to engage with a peer other than demanding they “share.” I want them to have the experience of watching another child play with an interesting toy, waiting, asking, “Can you tell me about what you’re doing?,” “Can I play too?,” “Is there a way I can help?,” or, yes, even, “When you are all done, can I have a turn?”
There was a little girl that Babygirl used to crawl around with on the floor of the Mothers’ Room at church before we put her in the nursery. She was as adorable as her parents were kind, but every time she picked up a toy — whether one of ours or one of her own — a parent would sing-song, “Shaaaaare,” and prompt her to give it to Babygirl. She always did, and her parents would gaze down proudly at their darling daughter. Often, Babygirl would pick up a toy and offer it to her. As soon as the girl took the toy in her hands, one of the parents would reprimand, “Ah-ah, shaaaaare,” until she handed it back.
I admire how important it clearly was to this couple to raise a daughter who treats others with kindness, but I couldn’t help but wonder why on Earth she wasn’t allowed to play. What is the value, I wondered, of interrupting her exploration to tell her to give up a toy that no one had even asked for? From where I sat, she had every right to the cups, books, and cars that she found on the floor. Why are we so afraid of letting children navigate these things on their own?
And I know the answer to that: because it doesn’t always go smoothly.
And also, I’m afraid, because we err all too often on the side of avoiding judgment rather than on the side of supporting our children. And, trust me, there are mothers who can’t believe what they’re hearing when one of my children tells theirs, “I’m not finished,” but I won’t allow myself to play the “good mother” for an audience of strangers at the park at the expense of actually being a good mother to the two tiny people who need it the most. My children know that toys we bring to the park are there for others to have a turn with as well (and that, if they change their minds, those toys can be stowed beneath the stroller), they are experts in trading, and they have known me to occasionally go as far as to whisper, “I want to make sure that everyone is getting a chance to play,” when a peer is noticeably frustrated about being left out of a group. But they also know how to advocate for themselves.
So, yes, sometimes, if your daughter asks my son for the monster truck he’s using, she may not be happy with the answer. But I just had that same three year old say to me, “Mommy, do you want the last bite of my ice cream? I noticed you didn’t get any for yourself,” just moments after his two year old sister spontaneously exclaimed, “This ice cream is deeeeelicious! Thank you! Thank you! THANK YOU!”
They are thoughtful. They are generous. They are grateful.
And they are all of those things on their own terms.
It isn’t always easy, but when I manage to stay out of it and refuse to force my kids to “share” their things, these are some of the moments they share instead:
BUG: “Can I have a turn on your scooter?”
BABYGIRL: “No, I’m still riding it.”
BUG: “But when will you be done?”
BABYGIRL: “Hmm…three minutes.”
BUG: “I can’t wait that long! One minute!!”
BABYGIRL: “Ok, one minute.” (starts riding the scooter while counting) “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, seven, eight, nine.” (stops and gets off the scooter) “Here you go. I’m all done.”
BUG (after wolfing down his own snack): “Can I share some of your snack?”
BUG (almost immediately): “Can I have some now please?”
BABYGIRL: “No.” (looking back to me) “I don’t want to share it.”
ME: “That’s your snack. It’s ok to say, ‘No’ if you want to eat it all yourself.”
BABYGIRL (considers, then to BUG): “Don’t you take a big bite.”
BUG: “I won’t take a big bite. Just a tiiiiiiiiny bite. Can I? Pleeeease?”
BABYGIRL: “Ok. Tiny bite.” (offers him the snack)
BUG: “Can I have a sticker, please?”
BUG: “Babygirl, you have all of them. Can I have one, please?”
BUG (bursting into tears): “Why are you not giving me any??”
BABYGIRL: “Are you sad?”
BUG (sobbing): “Yes.”
BUG: “Because you have all the stickers and you aren’t giving me any.”
BABYGIRL: “I can’t give you these stickers. They are too spicy. You might eat ’em.”
BUG: “Stickers aren’t spicy!!” (hysterical laughter) “Can I have one, please? I won’t eat it.”
BABYGIRL: “Ok. Don’t you eat it this spicy sticker.” (more laughter)
BABYGIRL: “Can I sit in this chair with you?”
BUG: “No. I need some space to fix this ornament.”
BABYGIRL: “I wanna watch. Can I rock you?”
BUG: “Sure. But not too fast.”
BUG: “Can you give that book to me?”
BUG: “But it looks like you are not reading it.”
BABYGIRL: “Give me that bear.”
BUG: “No. I want the book. You are not reading it.”
BABYGIRL: “Can’t have it.” (starts reading it)
BUG: “After you’re done reading it, can you give it to me?”
BUG: “When will you be done reading it?”
BABYGIRL: “Two more minutes.” (starts showing him pictures) “Look at that right there.”
BUG: “Are you at the end yet?”
BUG: “When you get to the last page, you will be at the end.”
BABYGIRL (starts counting the pages, then, eventually): “I’m all done. Here you go.”
And, just for the sake of cuteness, here they are, eating a bagel that they wouldn’t let me cut in half because they wanted to take turns having bites: