"Dad, I see that you're reading this book but it's time you gave it to your friend now, because sharing is fun and it's going to make him happy."
How weird would it have been to hear this? Being asked to share a book we read sounds absurd. Refusing to share it shouldn't make us look unkind or unfriendly. Plain and simple. We just don't share our belongings–especially in the middle of using them–unless we want to.
It's no different with kids. We often nudge children to share their toys and books with friends, siblings, or random peers they meet outside. With good intentions, we want to teach them how great it feels–to share.
Having another person's face light up, being appreciated, feeling generous and humble–these are all great things for our kids to experience.
But the reality is, children are naturally wired to help others and share their belongings. Forcing children to share their belongings, on the other hand, teaches them some crucially wrong lessons.
In this article, you'll find out:
- The developmental steps of sharing
- Why forcing kids to share teaches them the wrong lessons
- Wrong strategies parents use and what parents can do instead
Let's dive in!
The developmental steps of sharing
Sharing of emotions and attention
Sharing is an important element of human social interaction as it enables fairness and cooperation. Like all humans, babies share too. They share emotions, attention, information, and resources.
Some researchers suggest that babies are “natural altruists.” As much as their cognitive capacities allow, they have the ability to put others first.
At as early as 12 months old, babies can sense distress in others and offer comfort. And even earlier, by 10 – 12 months, they might offer food to adults to bond. These are all early signals of sharing.
Sharing naturally begins in the first year of life during social contact with adults. But during this time, children's sharing is not intended to benefit the person they share with. For example, showing a toy to the mother means that the emotions or the attention is shared but it doesn't necessarily benefit the mother.
When does the sense of ownership first appear?
Science is unclear whether children understand ownership before age one. Studies show that by age two, toddlers start to get a grasp of ownership (i.e. mommy's shoes); however, the concept is still not clear.
For example, in one study, 24-month-olds could identify people's belongings but couldn't match them when the objects went out of sight. 30-month-olds could do this.
Two-year-olds recognize their own belongings, but if someone else's belongings are taken, they don't consider it to be unjust. They also don't understand group ownership. In one study, when they were told an object belongs to the whole classroom, they shared a lot less than 4 or 5-year-olds.
In short, children's understanding of ownership develops over a long time but it first appears around 2 years of age.
The sharing as we know it starts to develop at 18 months
Between 18 and 24 months of age, children start sharing things to intentionally benefit the other person, even if it costs them their own comfort. For example, an older child may share his cookies with his crying younger sibling to make her happy.
One study showed that toddlers recognized when they had more things than others. They voluntarily shared their stuff if sharing did not mean giving up everything they owned.
The same study found that 24-month-olds shared "readily, frequently, and generously" whereas 18-month-olds shared less and were less generous than older children. Also, the better their understanding of ownership was, the easier they shared.
In short, sharing is a developmental process. The older children get, the more they share voluntarily.
3 reasons why we shouldn't force children to share
1) Sharing should come from the heart
Sharing makes sense when we want to share, not when we are forced to share. When we give a push to our children to share their stuff, we give them the wrong message that their own judgment of the situation is not valid.
According to research, allowing children the freedom to choose when sharing their valuable possessions makes them better sharers. When children make difficult choices, they learn more about their inner abilities, preferences, and intentions toward others. This influences their sharing behavior in the future.
2) Some belongings are not sharable
Just like us, our children have things they want to keep to themselves. When our children refuse to share particular items with their friends or siblings, we should support them. They might have attached a special meaning to an object that we are not aware of.
Even if the object is not special, the fact that they are engaged with it at that moment makes it special. Imagine, as an adult, having to hand over the cereal box when you're reading its ingredient list at the grocery store to another customer just because the store owner said so. The box is surely not ours but we expect others to wait until we are done engaging with it.
3) Boundaries are healthy for everyone
Sharing is a great thing to teach our children but so is standing their ground. Imagine one of our kids approaching their sibling, crying and demanding the toy in her hands. If we force our playing kid to share their toy, we will have taught the wrong lesson that crying is a method to obtain what we want.
Boundaries are the essence of any healthy relationship and the case of sharing is the perfect opportunity to teach them this concept. No matter if our kids find themselves in the position of the sharer or the demander, there's one lesson to be taught: respecting people's boundaries is important.
3 wrong strategies parents use during tensions of sharing
1) Deciding on who plays with what and for how long
When we act as a referee between children–especially between siblings–we present ourselves as the "justice bringer," preventing our kids from internally estimating their needs and the needs of others. If we set a time limit on playtime, we create competition and a race against time, harming the quality of free play and the sibling relationship.
Try this instead: Teach tolerance. Validate their frustration and difficulty of waiting ("It's hard to wait for that toy, isn't it?"). Explain that the toy will be available when the other child is done using it but that he will use it for as long as he wants. Help your child come up with something else to do.
2) Taking away the unsharable object
This is a form of punishment and like all punishments, teaches children that external validation is more important than internal. If two children are fighting over a toy, the parent's responsibility is to gently understand both viewpoints and nudge children towards the right direction where they can make their own decisions. Children like to be in charge too and when given the opportunity they can come up with plans to ease conflicts.
Try this instead: Ask them questions and teach them how to ask questions. For instance, you can ask why they don't want to share their toy. Further, you can tell the other child to politely ask the sibling/friend when they will be done playing.
3) Distracting kids
When we distract kids, they miss out on an important learning: being upset over not obtaining a toy right away is perfectly normal, so is being disappointed and crying. Becoming more tolerant of those circumstances and learning to self-regulate, usually with the compassionate support of the parent is the only way forward.
Try this instead: Teach kids how to politely say no and how to accept it as an answer. Tell them, "Tell your sibling, 'No, I'm playing with this right now.'" Rather than forcing a behavior and distracting them afterwards, we can teach them how to say no to others, become more tolerant to it as an answer, and perhaps try to negotiate.
In many societies, children’s demanding behavior is unwelcome. These behaviors are tried to be altered without looking at their root causes. Punishing kids for wanting a toy, not sharing a toy, or because they get strong emotions throughout this process are also common. But there is another way.
Sharing is an important life skill but so are waiting for our turn, tolerating discomfort, and being able to politely say no. Tensions created over sharing are perfect opportunities to teach our kids these valuable life lessons. Following our children's developmental readiness in sharing, we can–by using every small opportunity–teach them:
- To ask for what they want.
- Understand that sometimes they'll get what they want and sometimes they will have to take no as an answer.
- That it's okay to cry but it isn't a way to get what they want.
- That parents understand, support, and guide them.
- That they can get better at waiting and eventually their turn will arrive.
- That their generosity makes the other person happy.
- That no one is the distributor of justice–even the parents–and that children can negotiate and settle on an agreement among themselves.
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