My Toddler Doesn’t Have to Share

And I’m okay with that.

My daughter does not have to share.

I know this goes against one of the cardinal rules of parenting; and, as a result, I’m the recipient of more than a few sideway glances and the occasional passive aggressive, “I guess some children don’t have mommies with manners.” Yes, I’m the “nightmare mommy” at the park who sits on the bench with her cup of coffee, not paying the same hawk-like attention that you are to your child.

But before you rush to judgment, I encourage you to hear me out. Not forcing my child to share does not make me an “anti-sharer.” My approach is just different: I teach my child why she should want to share instead of telling her that she has to share.

I can’t take credit for the idea. I live in Southern California, which is full of moms determined to be pioneers on all “revolutionary” parenting trends (for better or worse), and belong to a handful of toddler programs that embrace the “no forced sharing” philosophy. The concept itself was popularized by early childhood development guru Magda Gerber. According to her, young children are unable to grasp the concept of sharing, and forcing them to share in an attempt to teach them communal living can actually have the reverse outcome.  

When toddlers are told they must share, they can feel a loss of control and ownership and, as a result, have a more difficult time embracing the concept of sharing as they grow into preschoolers and beyond. On the other hand, children who are given the opportunity to resolve their own conflicts may connect the dots, learn to see from another person’s perspective and become more cooperative and charitable towards others — paving the way to a more enjoyable transition into the rich, active and social world we live in.  

So how does this look in practice?

Let’s say my daughter is shoveling sand at the park, and another young girl sits down and tries to take her shovel. Before jumping up to anticipate an outcome, I just observe. Contrary to public opinion, toddlers are capable of conflict resolution. She may relinquish the shovel and move on to another sand toy, or she may grip it tightly until the other child moves on to a different toy. But if neither child seems upset, why should I go over and instigate drama? This isn’t high school; ain’t nobody got time for that.

Inserting myself into a situation where two toddlers have already moved passed the conflict doesn’t seem like a good expense of energy. Plus, by jumping in every time two children want a single toy, you can make them dependent on adults to resolve conflicts. My priority is to promote my daughter’s independence and self-confidence, and allowing her to problem solve is a major way I can do that. I’d much rather sit back and enjoy my cup of coffee before it’s cold.

Sure, there may be some tears as a result of this exchange, but that’s when it becomes a “teaching moment” (a phrase I can’t believe I’m actually using). If the other little girl is upset and starts crying, I don’t make my daughter share. Rather, I step in to calmly narrate the situation to both children. Really compelling stuff like: “You’re feeling sad because you want to play with the shovel, and she’s not done playing with it yet” and “This little girl would like to play with the shovel too. Shoveling is fun.” Since my child has the shovel, she “owns” the object, so she’s the one who has to decide to share. Nine times out of ten, my daughter hands over the object and moves on to something else without a fuss — unless it’s a cookie, in which case home girl has an iron-clad grip.

It sounds ridiculous but it works. The first time this happened, my jaw nearly hit the floor. My daughter knew I wasn’t going to force her to share, but when I explained that another child wanted it, she made the decision to share.

Toddlers are told what to eat, how to act, what to wear, where to sleep… The list goes on and on and on. When they grab a toy to play with, that’s a choice they made for themselves, and forcing them to give it up, without even the respect of a conversation, can really leave them feeling defeated.

Young children are not inherently mean; they just have a tunnel vision and need to learn empathy, something I was unaware of until I became a mom.. As parents, we have to encourage our children to give a shit about things and people beyond themselves. By speaking to the crying child first, I am teaching my daughter to pay attention to and consider other people’s feelings. The hope is that children who learn the concept of empathy from an early age won’t vindictively hog toys later on. And it’s still a learning process — especially for me. I’ve definitely ripped a shovel out of my daughter’s hands to give it to another child. But I try to make that the exception, not the rule.

In the end, we’re all looking to accomplish the same thing: raising children who aren’t assholes. The “sharing-is-caring” mom and the “it’s-OK-not-to-share” mom both want their children to become kind and empathetic people who share with others; whether it’s of their time, their support, or their bag of organic yogurt covered pretzels.

So next time you see a tussle at the playground, you may consider approaching the situation differently. Or maybe not, and that’s okay. Just don’t get mad at me for enjoying my hot cup of coffee.

If you’re interested in learning more, I recommend: It’s OK Not to Share by Heather Shumaker and Your Self-Confident Baby by Magda Gerber.

Leslie Bruce

Leslie Bruce

Leslie Bruce is a New York Times bestselling author and an award-winning entertainment journalist. She’s the creator of online parenting platform Unpacified, which offers an unfiltered, humorous and raw perspective on modern motherhood. She previously worked as an editor at both Us Weekly magazine and The Hollywood Reporter. She’s appeared as a guest correspondent on shows such as The Talk, Access Hollywood, E! News, Good Morning America, and many more. Leslie lives in Los Angeles with her husband, her daughter and two rescue doodles.

Comments {9}

  1. So happy to see this! Just a few weeks ago, I told my husband, “I’m not buying into this mandatory sharing” but was apprehensive to tell mom friends since it would mean my toddler didn’t have to share with their toddler 😉 … I can now proceed with more confidence about my instincts on this. Thanks!

    Jenee Naquin
  2. Just wait till you meet the mom who thinks sharing is the only way and takes toys out of YOUR child’s hands to give to her own child because obviously you’re a lazy parent.

    Michelle Tamasa
  3. Interesting… What happens when one toddler begins to beat another toddler for not sharing? I suppose you go over then and break it up? What about when it’s not some random person and it’s a sibling or a daycare classmate or it’s not even their toy? Parents are expected to control selfish behaviors. I would not tell my friends that my toddler doesn’t have to mandatory share… I would just tell the truth “my toddler doesn’t care to share and I’m too new age to enforce good manners.”

    Hanadia Hudspeth
  4. This was really insightful. My son’s only 7 months now but I definitely want to use this to encourage him to be an independent, critical reader.

    Chelsie O.P. Washington
  5. How do you handle the situation where your daughter takes an object from another child? It’s kinda the opposite of sharing, but this is the situation I find myself in more often. Do you still hang back and let it resolve itself, or are do you get involved sooner?

    Lisa O.
  6. This is the philosophy we’re following with our toddler, too. Sharing does not mean you give up what you have when someone else wants it if you are still using it. Sharing means TAKING TURNS in this scenario. I can point out that the other child would like to use it and is waiting, but I will not make my child, if interested in the object and still using it, give it to another toddler who wants it NOW. That doesn’t teach them anything either, other than “if I want it, other kids have to give it to me.” And if I see my toddler wanting something another child is using, I tell her the other kid is using it and if she waits patiently, when the kid is done she’ll probably get a chance to use it. So why don’t we play with this while we wait? or some other distraction.

    Rekha
  7. I mean, in this one scenario sure this method works. But how bout when your friend comes over with her toddler and your toddler wants to “own” every single toy the other toddler looks at because it’s theirs and their house and the territorial instincts of a toddler are more aggressive than a mother bear. Do you still apply the same method? That your toddler gets to choose whether or not her friend, who is over for a play date can touch anything without a huge melt down? Because if so, thats not something I’m on board with. Of course at a park you’re not going to walk
    Over and strip a shovel from your kids hands because someone else feels like using it. But there’s a million more situations than just this one example the author writes about so it doesn’t make this article very helpful.

    Krystin
  8. Thanks everyone for the feedback. It’s definitely not for everyone, but it’s an approach my husband and I have adopted. Kristin, as you pointed out there are a million scenarios, which is is why I recommended some additional material if interested. I decided to offer what I faced most of the time. As for a friend coming to your house, what your child is playing with at the time is what he or she “owns.” If your friend’s child comes over and starts playing with a truck, she “owns” that truck. So if your child wants goes to grab it, your friend’s child is playing and your child can play with something else and wait for your friend to be done, unless the other child is ready to share. The sense of ownership at this age is whatever they have in front of them, and not how we assign ownership. If that doesn’t make sense, feel free to DM me at @leslieannebruce!

    Lisa O., the answer is yes, hang back, but ahhhh! It’s so awkward right? The other parent is looking at you like “why aren’t you doing anything?” If the other child doesnt care and picks up a bucket or a rake, then the philosophy says don’t make a problem when there is none. Both kids are fine and if you go over there and rip if out of your child hands, it’s likely you’re gonna have some drama. At that age, forcing sharing is only gonna make them cling tighter and cry harder. They don’t understand the concept. You won’t teach them anything because they process thru feelings. If the other child cries when your child takes the shovel, I would go over and talk the crying child and say, “She took your shovel and that makes you feel said because you weren’t done playing.” And then I would explain to my child and show her that her actions hurt the other child. And ask her if she wants to hand over the shovel and take turns. Kids aren’t mean at this age, she doesn’t want to hurt the other child, she’s just not thinking about the other child. That’s where we come in as parents. Hope this helps!

    Leslie Bruce
  9. Leslie , thank goodness I found a mom that uses this method. I feel it does give your daughter the opportunity to make a choice and share or not share, instead of feeling forced to do it. Children are certainly told what to do from what to eat to what to wear so I think this is a great way to let them have some independence in making a decision. Thanks for sharing!

    Sandy

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