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.