Whenever there is a group of children, sharing is so often seen as the holy grail, isn’t it? As parents there can be so much pressure to ensure our child is seen as a “good sharer”! But with sharing, as with so many aspects of parenting, children’s developmental abilities don’t always match the societal expectations we put upon them. So what do we do if our child doesn’t share?
I believe that as parents, we should never force our children to share. Why? I feel that it is disrespectful, and it is hypocritical; by forcing children to share, we are demanding something of them we would never demand of ourselves, namely to give up something that instant just because someone else wants it. Imagine if someone bigger than you forced you to give your mobile phone / wedding ring / other treasured possession to someone else, just because the other person wanted it? You would probably feel angry and violated and like the world was a scary, unsafe place. Yet I have seen parents forcibly remove a toy from their child and hand it over to another, on more than one occasion.
I cannot think of one positive outcome from that behaviour. I strongly suspect it makes the child feel insecure about their possessions, think that “sharing” is bad, and be less likely to genuinely share later down the line. Children have a strong inbuilt sense of fairness; what is fair about teaching them “others can take what they want from you, but you must never take from them?” I also wonder if it leads to difficulty with establishing boundaries and an inability to say “no” to people; certainly it worries me from a consent perspective.
There are positive ways in which we can teach our children to share, however! Sharing is absolutely a learned behaviour, and one which we as parents can encourage. We can:
- Model sharing ourselves. Sharing with our children and with others is a simple and powerful way to show them that sharing is enjoyable.
- Encourage generosity. Making cards or painting pictures for others, bringing an extra snack for a friend when on a playdate, choosing a gift together for someone’s birthday, baking for visitors, donating food to a food bank collection point… there are many simple ways to encourage generosity without having to “share”.
- Talk about how our actions make people feel, highlighting how good it feels for the other person when we share of our own accord.
- Focus on turn-taking rather than sharing. This is so useful for me as a parent, and has nipped many an argument in the bud. This works especially well when the “turn” is relatively concrete, such as sliding down a slide or pressing a button, rather than just playing with something.
- Support our children when they are waiting for their turn. It’s always hard to wait for things you want, especially when you are two! Supporting and validating their feelings and providing a safe space for strong emotions is one of the most important things we can do as parents.
- Think about where to have playdates. I find that playdates in a neutral space such as a park or playground can be far less fraught than held indoors in a child’s home where they – rightly – feel a sense of ownership over their possessions. If this isn’t possible or desirable think ahead of time perhaps about putting away any “special” toys, or talking together and choosing which items your child would like to keep out.
- Not take toys out with us. Linked to my point above, I try to really discourage Frida from taking toys out, as these can lead to tensions and arguments if other children want to play with them! If toys do come out then usually we agree that we will keep them in the bag, unless she feels she wants to share them. Likewise, if another child has a prized toy with them, we are firm with boundaries around that toy. One of the children we see regularly has a precious stuffed dog which comes with him everywhere, and Frida knows that he is special and “out of bounds” for her to play with.
Navigating snatching and grabbing
It’s not always easy or simple. One of the things I have found so difficult to navigate is snatching and grabbing. Young children will often grab from each other, and as a parent this can feel SO hard; if our child is the one grabbing we can feel embarrassed or under pressure to tell them off, ask them to apologise*, or even snatch back the item to return it (although why we would feel it’s ok to tell a child not to grab whilst grabbing from them I don’t know!), and if our child is the one who is being grabbed from we can feel angry and hurt on their behalf and even annoyed at the other child, especially if they are bigger.
My preference is, as far as possible, to let the children work it out together whilst providing emotional support for Frida and staying very close by to prevent escalation. This can feel incredibly uncomfortable if she is the child doing the grabbing though, particularly if it’s obvious that the other parent is upset on their own child’s behalf. If we are in a situation where she in a “snatchy” mood then I find I have to stay very watchful so that I can gently intercept her, taking her aside and talking to her about why I have acted in that way if necessary and reinforcing that we cannot just take things away from other people. I have found this is much easier to navigate when the other parent is a friend – not least because we also know each other’s children well and will be able to diffuse a situation with more ease!
The balance between respecting the children involved in the squabble and giving them time and space to reach a solution, and ensuring boundaries are enforced and everyone stays safe, is a difficult one, especially when we feel judged for our child’s behaviour, and I’m sure it’s not something I’ve always managed perfectly. But I do feel it is so important for Frida to work these things out with my support rather than me always stepping in.
I try and do this by “sportscasting” (“I can see that you both want to play with that toy, but Jane is playing with it and it doesn’t look like she is finished with it.” or “You were playing with the doll and now Milly has it, I can see how sad you are feeling”) and encouraging the children to come up with a solution themselves (“Ok so you both want to play with the pink ball. What can we do?”) or offering some options (“Shall we see if we can find any other balls? How about Peter tells you when he’s finished and then you can have a turn?”). One of my friends especially is so good at doing this, and it is so powerful!
Of course, this won’t always be enough; I don’t think it’s ever OK to let children hurt one another, and I would also not stand by if Frida was constantly snatching from another child or being grabbed from. If things are escalating, we need to step in. But I do feel that trusting our children as much as we can and empowering them to work through issues – and giving them a chance to try! – is the way to go if we want to raise empathic, cooperative children.
*Forced apologies are probably another blog post for another day! I never ask or tell Frida to apologise, as I don’t think an apology is meaningful if someone makes you do it. However, if she has upset another child I do apologise to them and their parents, and acknowledge they are hurt / upset. Here are some articles if you want to think about the issue further: here / here