“You have to share.”
These are some of the most popular and ubiquitous phrases you’ll hear in a group of parents and toddlers – right up there with “use your words” and “great job.” At the playground, in the sand box, during play dates – the institution of sharing seems to be high on the list of most parents’ concerns.
With good reason. It feels so nice to have our little ones rise to the occasion. I get warm fuzzies when my three-year-old hands over a tiny racecar to a covetous friend. We all want our kids to be polite, socially-skilled little beings – the kind who plays well with others has the all-important life skills of compromise, empathy, and kindness.
But still, I’ve never said these words to my kids. If you have a toddler, you’ve seen it before: when they’re really focused on playing with something – whether it’s a a sand-scooping bulldozer, or a simple wooden spoon – it’s their entire world at that moment. Play is the most pivotal job little kids have, and whatever seemingly random toy has their attention captivated, that’s the all-important work of the moment.
In adult terms, it’s like when I sit down with my morning coffee and get absorbed by a book – the rest of the world falls away, and my attention is completely wrapped up. Asking a toddler to share what he’s working with (if it’s something in which he’s truly engaged) would be a bit like saying to me in that moment, “Now, you read that novel for five minutes and then give it to Tommy so he can read for five minutes.” I might comply, but I’d feel interrupted, confused, and probably more than a little annoyed.
In fact, we have reason to think that young kids naturally feel a particularly strong sense of ownership when it comes to objects (stronger than that of adults), which helps explain the monumental meltdowns that can happen over who’s playing with what. They’re not trying to be manipulative and stubborn (okay, not always) – handing their stuff over is legitimately challenging given the brain software they’re working with.
One of the reasons the toddler brain can’t wrap itself around our adult concept of sharing is that it’s difficult to see things from another person’s perspective. That’s the crux of empathy – one of our most complex and sophisticated human cognitive skills and something that takes the bulk of childhood, and maybe even part of young adulthood, to master.
So instead of harping on sharing, I made it a point to put my energy towards my kids flex their empathy muscles and develop an awareness of their own feelings and how they impacts other people.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not so black and white. If there’s a planned playdate going down then toys should be fair game There are also plenty of social behaviors I just flat out have taught my kids and I expect them to follow, like saying thank you, or asking for things with a question instead of demanding them with a statement. But when it comes to sharing, I prefer to the idea of building the abilities underneath it instead of imposing it from the top down. The broom and dustpan exchange is momentary, but I’m pretty sure the underlying emotional skills will be some of the most important ones they’ll have for the rest of their lifes.
What are your thoughts on forcing/teaching kids to share?