Friday, 1 August 2014

Should We 'Teach' Our Children to Share?


You're sat at a cafe table with a group of friends, chatting away happily, when a stranger comes over and barks at you "My turn now! You go!"  You object vociferously, but a passing policeman says "You've had that table for long enough, it's their turn now.  You have to learn to share you know."  Muttering and grumbling, you have no choice but to give up your table.

At work you have a big pile of photocopying to work through, but halfway through Ann comes over and tells you it's her turn.  You open your mouth to object, but catch sight of your boss out of the corner of your eye.  You know if you argue back he's going to come down on you like a ton of bricks so, even though you still want to carry on using the photocopier, you walk away.

You're back in the cafe, on your own this time, and reading one of the complimentary newspapers.  You're halfway through a really interesting article when an older person walks up to you and says it's their turn for the newspaper now.  The barista raises an eyebrow at you as you begin to object, so you give the newspaper away.  You're just settling back down in your armchair with your delicious coffee when another older person appears.  "That's my chair, I saw it first! It's mine," he says.  You answer back when the barista begins to approach threateningly.  It seems best to give up the armchair.  At least you still have your coffee!  When the barista reaches you he says they've run out of cups at the coffee next door so he's going to give them yours.  "You don't mind do you?" he asks, snatching the cup out of your hand.  "It's nice to share."

How would you feel in any of these situations?  And how would you feel if you were a powerless child giving up a ride-on toy, or a battery-powered lights and sounds toy, a book, your seat, or some play crockery?

Not great, is it?  Yet many parents and carers are doing this to children every minute of every day.  And then wondering why there is a meltdown about something else later, or another child gets kicked, or they refuse to co-operate with something else, or pour water over their lovely painting later on.  Frustrated?  Hell yes, I know I would be!

What message are we giving children when they are continually told to give the thing they are playing with up?  That they are not worthy?  That they should come second in the world?  That people with power can be called on to tell them what to do, or called in to arbitrate so that someone else gets their own way?

And what message does the recipient get?  I matter more than that kid?  What I want, I get, even if someone else loses out?  I can always ask someone bigger to help me get what I want?  And then we wonder why bullying is rife!

Some people will read this and think that their child is good at sharing, or their child naturally wants to share.  I'm afraid not, children, like all human beings, are intrinsically self first.  Not necessarily selfish or self-centred, but if they want to play with the red buggy they truly believe they should be able to.  And if the red buggy is free and they begin to play with it, why should they then be told to give it up because Freddie wants it now?  Some children do appear to be better at sharing or to have 'learnt' to share, but actually what they have learnt is to keep grown-ups quiet/happy so that they don't get told off.  They will still feel the sting of frustration, but will their respective grown-up recall that later when the meltdown happens, or they kick the cat, or take something off their younger sibling?  Probably not.

In a group situation there are of course only limited toys, but is telling one child they have to give something up just because another wants it teaching them a valuable lesson?  I don't think so.  Child 2 gets the message that he can have everything he wants, not a good life lesson!  Child 1 gets the message that he has to give things up if someone else says so, not such a good lesson for him either.

And children are even told this about their own possessions, whether at home or out and about.  If Lara takes a doll with her to the beach she is perfectly entitled to not let some other child play with it.  When someone asks to borrow or share something, no is a perfectly legitimate response, even from a child.  If she has friends to play, yes it is nice if they can play together, but if she suddenly freaks out about her special Lego, that's OK too.

I read articles like this and think, OK great theory, but what do you actually do?!  So...  If Lara is playing with something that Sophia wants, instead of insisting on sharing, we try to work through possible solutions together.  Is there another car or whatever she could play with instead?  Can she wait until Lara has finished with it?  Would she like to play a different game?  Can she help with some housework?  We ask the girls, what other solutions are there?  This may be more hands-on and parent-involved than simply demanding that people 'share' (i.e. give up what they want), but for us it's worth it.  I would also argue that this kind of conflict resolution and working together teaches far more important life skills than sharing by command ever could.

I realise that many people will say that children have to learn to compromise and, of course, I agree, that is a valuable life skill.  But psychologically, sharing is a skill most children aren't ready for until at least age 7 to 8.  They just don't have the psychological maturity or the emotional literacy to cope with the concept until then.  In the meantime, I will talk to my daughters about sharing their space, their time, their love, and their possessions with other people such as family members and friends, but I will be standing strong on the principle that they don't have to continually 'share' when they don't want to.  What about you?


  1. that's a really interesting post, definatly makes me think about things differently

    1. Thank you. I think it's so easy for us adults to insist that children 'be nice and share', but do we ever really think the concept through? Most of us aren't happy to share!

  2. very wise words leta, when ava has friends over we put her 'special' things away to save the agro and upset! i would hate to be made to share things i didnt want to sp why should we inforce that on children who probably dont even understand why there being made to do so!

    1. Yes, putting special things away is a great idea. And I totally agree with you, children who apparently share nicely are merely doing so to keep the adults happy, and not be told off. That's a very different behaviour than choosing to share of their own volition.

      Thanks for commenting.

  3. I love this article, it's really interesting isn't it, a real thought provoker. My children are 8 and 10 and so we've got past some of this 'sharing' with strangers issue when in public situations but I basically tried to get balance. If they were playing with a toy in a public space, I'd usually encourage the child asking for the toy to wait a bit until my child had had a good play, and then encourage my child to go find them and offer the toy up voluntarily. That usually kept both sides happy. Sometimes it will depend on the attitude of both children on the day and reading the situation - i.e. pick your battles. At home, we've never had any issues of sharing with friends / relatives children but sibling sharing is a different matter! Mine, possessiveness is so hard to marshall and even at this age, it's an argument that is often heard "She / He didn't ask to use it" - "It's mine" to which I usually end up snapping if the argument is protracted that I paid for it so in fact the toy belongs to me and I'm letting them play with it, or a confiscation of said article until they work out a sensible compromise! This article has given me a really good reason to assess my thinking on this and think more carefully about these battles and choices in the future, and how my kids might feel, so thank you Attachmentmummy.

    1. Thanks Michelle, I'm glad it has helped. Maybe with older children a special drawer or cupboard each for their non-sharing things would work, and then another area for communal things or stuff they are happy to share. What do you think?

      I think it's human nature to want to keep your own things to yourself, but with our older two we see voluntary sharing when they've finished with something, or with food for example, so the hands off approach must be working! Not all the time mind ;-)

  4. A draw could work for them but I think the difficulty for us is the electronics. We're not made of money and so the children share an ipad that was kindly donated by an elderly relative now passed on; they have to share a laptop for school stuff as again; it's not usually the little bitsy toys they have of their own that they need to or want to share but the bigger stuff. I am going to ask them however what they value and would prefer not to share and see if we can find a space these items go in and are not allowed to be taken without the owners permission. Quite often, I find they voluntarily share when there is no parent around to referee, yet once a parent is within earshot a certain amount of attention is sought to get their own way. Anyway, we are all alive and I'll see how they feel about some items now which is a good exercise to go about. In fact I need a drawer of my own for lipsticks right now as Rose has ruined several and spilt my perfume too... I'd like to cry out 'but its all mine' but that's life I suppose and a quiet chat about it ensued instead. xx

    1. Haha, if only there was an arbitrator for parents too! Good luck!

  5. This is really interesting and it makes a lot of sense to me.
    I have already found myself feeling a bit uncomfortable at having to make sure Boo shares and have found myself trying to distract her away from the sought after toy even if she is the one playing with it (rather than telling her she must share). Though obviously there are times when you feel more pressures yourself to get them to share (like when you are at their friends house, playing with their friends toys). Boo will give up things of her own accord she will sometimes run to be one of the first to get the props being handed out at a singing group we go to, but then turn round and go and give it to another child,only to go back and get another one for herself - but she has chosen to do this, and it's not like she is being strong armed into to doing so which I guess is what I feel uncomfortable with. I am not sure exactly how I am going to approach this to be honest, but it's nice to know others feel the same as I do!

  6. I can certainly understand your point, but what does this teach child 2? That they aren't worthy of the toy? That if they aren't quick enough then tough? Would my child end up with a sense of self intitlement so inbred that they find it hard to make friends because they don't think they should have to share? Do younger siblings feel inferior because no1 child always gets his own way? Conflict resolution at the end of the day is learning how to share and compromise.

    Sharing should be taught in a careful way. I would never force my son to immediately give up a toy just because another child was trying to snatch it, in the same way I would never let him snatch a toy off another child, but I would explain that it's kind to share and take turns and that he can play with it again later, or show them how they can play together. Sharing is a vital human interaction - and so is learning to deal with frustration. Yes they may get angry later, but that's also something you have to learn to deal with, and I think better sooner rather than later - the world isn't a perfect place and frustration is a part of every day life.


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