You don’t need to teach your child to share
Share. If you have young children, you probably say, or hear, that word about eleventy million times a day. Every time you go to a park, a playground, a playcentre, on a playdate, to a party. In your own lounge room. Dining room. Bedroom. Playroom. Hey, probably even the bathroom. We spend A LOT of time as parents encouraging our kids to share.
And I get it. None of us wants to be the parent of ‘that’ child. We are terrified that if we don’t teach our kids how to share when they are young, they will grow up to be selfish and entitled. The kid no one invites to parties or playdates. We don’t want that for our kids. Or for ourselves!
We want to raise kind, generous kids who get along well with others. And it’s our job to guide them and teach them and ensure that happens right? But what if what we’re doing is actually making things worse?
Sharing is not what you think it is
Usually when we ask children to share, what we’re really asking them to do is to give something they have to someone else. Simply because they asked for it. Even if they are in the middle of playing with it. And I hate to break it to you, but that’s not sharing.
Consider this. You’re at the park, and you’re using your new phone. Another parent approaches you. You don’t know them, but they tell you that they love your phone. They ask if they can have a turn. Do you give it to them?
No! Well, I hope not. That would be weird. And totally unacceptable.
The phone belongs to you. You don’t need to hand it over to someone else simply because it caught their eye. But this is what we ask children to do all the time! No, their ball or their doll is not as expensive as your iPhone. But it’s valuable to them. And when we force kids to relinquish their belongings to others, we don’t teach them to share. What we actually teach them is that others can demand things of them and they should simply comply. In doing so, we take away their power and we create resentment and frustration. We actually make it less likely that they will share willingly next time.
How will they learn to share if I don’t teach them?
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not anti-sharing. Sharing is great. It’s important to learn how to take turns and share with others and to be kind and generous. Kids definitely need to learn these skills.
It’s the way we tend to teach kids to share that is the problem. Forced sharing is not sharing. And it generally backfires on us anyway. Because force creates resistance. So what can you do instead?
Shift your focus
Children often want the toy they see someone else playing with. You’ve seen this phenomenon before right? Your child discards a toy, and as soon as another child picks it up, they drop what they were playing happily with and suddenly want the discarded toy again. Desperately.
It’s frustrating to us as adults to see this play out over and over. And also kind of baffling. But that’s because we’re viewing it through our adults lens. Us adults have all the necessary social skills we need to engage and interact with other adults (well, mostly!). Kids, especially very young ones, don’t have those skills yet.
Often what we view as a struggle over a toy, is simply young children learning to play and engage with each other. Exploring the toy together. Being curious. Testing things out. Learning. It’s often not even about the toy at all – it’s the social interaction with each other that the children are seeking out. And when we jump in with our rules and demands about sharing, we rob children of important learning opportunities. WE are the ones who make it about the toy.
So instead of immediately jumping in with our adult interpretation of the situation, it’s often helpful to take a step back and simply become a curious observer. Consider your role a purely supervisory one. As long as no one is getting hurt, try to allow the children to work it out themselves. They may surprise you.
Sportscasting, a term originally coined by Magda Gerber, is the act of simply stating what you see in a very matter of fact way. There is no shame or blame, just observations. So you might say, “Johnny was holding the truck and now you have it Ruby.” Or “You and Billy both want that ball.” You do not get involved during sportcasting, you are a neutral observer. Just like a sportscaster, narrating the play. This simple acknowledgement helps children feel understood and often reduces tension and conflict that arises when adults try to get involved.
Validate and scaffold
We can use struggles over toys as opportunities to further develop emerging social skills. Often when I see adults trying to support children with sharing, the focus is on the child with the toy. We encourage this child to hand over what they have to the asker. But really, both children in this scenario need some support and we need to acknowledge and validate the feelings of both parties.
To the child wanting a turn we can say: “Billy I see you that you really want a turn with the truck. Jesse is playing with the truck right now, and you can have a turn when he is done.” If Billy gets upset, we acknowledge that too, “Waiting is really hard isn’t it? I’m here to help you though. Would you like to do a puzzle together while we wait for your turn?”
And of course, we also want to support the child with the toy: “Jesse, you look like you’re having so much fun playing with the truck. When you’re finished, Billy would like a turn.”
In my experience, when we take the pressure off the child with the toy, and we afford them some choice, they willingly give the other child a turn. Quite quickly.
Children will learn what they see, so show them how it’s done! If they hear you talking about sharing but don’t get an opportunity to see it in action, the message – and its importance – will be lost. So look for opportunities to model graciousness and gratitude. Share with them. Take turns. Let them see you sharing with others. Be generous. They’re always watching.
Acknowledge sharing when you see it
Let your child know when you notice them sharing with others. Often times we fall in to the trap of only pointing out the behaviour we don’t want to see, because this is generally the behaviour that needs our most immediate attention. But children need to know that we notice the good stuff too. They need to know what we want them to do, not just what we don’t want them to do. Let them know, “Thank you for sharing your chips with me.” Or, “That was so kind of you to share your truck with John earlier.”
Adjust your expectations
Above all, it’s important to remember that sharing is a skill that develops over time. It is a gradual process that is strongly linked to the development of empathy. We can provide support and scaffolding while our children learn, but we cannot rush the process. We need to have realistic expectations of our little ones, because when we force kids to share, or expect them to do it before they are developmentally ready, all we do is make ‘share’ a bad word.
Let’s face it, if you thought someone was going to take away your precious belongings every time someone expressed an interest in them, you’d hold on tighter and insist they were yours too, right?
Do you need some more support with tricky toddler and preschooler behaviour? Come ask a question inside our mindful parenting community on Facebook. Raising Mindful Little Minds is a Facebook group for parents who want to parent without shame, blame or fear so they can raise emotionally healthy, connected families and kids who change the world.
Sarah is a psychologist, mama of 4 and the creator of Mindful Little Minds. She has over 10 years of experience working with children, adolescents and families experiencing mental health problems and has a special interest in anxiety disorders in children. In her spare time she enjoys hugging her kids, drinking coffee, and telling anyone who’ll listen how tired she is.