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?