Why Not to Force Kids to Share

I was reading a kids book about sharing to Dominik and I couldn’t quite pinpoint why this book suddenly annoyed me. I felt really bad for the main character that was forced to share and disliked his “friends” that only would play with him if he gave up his prized possessions. It struck me that I disagreed with the message about sharing.

Now, first let me explain that I am the type of person that supports donating and sharing as much and as often as possible. People really need to be helping each other more often. And, our kids should absolutely be encouraged to share and care for their peers. Sharing and cooperating are amazing and beneficial on both sides.

But as Dominik begins playing more with his peers, I know that there will be many times when the issue of sharing will arise. What do I want him to learn about sharing?

Let’s first walk through a typical playground situation: A child, let’s call her Sally, is playing with a toy by herself. Another child, let’s call him Tommy, walks up to Sally and asks her for the toy. Sally refuses and Tommy becomes upset. Sally’s mom says something like, “Sally, you need to share. Give Tommy the toy.” Sally, after some protesting, begrudgingly gives Tommy the toy, who happily starts playing with it.

Sound familiar?

Let’s take a deeper look. What Sally has learned is that her belongings are up for grabs and Tommy’s wants and needs were more important than her own. Tommy learned that he can have anything he wants, whenever he wants because his wants and needs are more important than Sally’s.

When we are teaching children to share, the longterm goal is that they will become kind and generous people who can problem solve and compromise. By forcing them to share, they are not learning to do so out of empathy. We would like our children to share a toy because they see that the other child is unhappy and they wish to make them happy. When they can truly empathize with the other child, sharing becomes easier and less parent-directed. This extends outside of sharing situations. Pointing out the feelings of others on a day to day basis helps children understand the feelings of others.

When our kids are on the opposite end of the situation, when they are the ones asking for a toy, forcing the other child to share instills a sense of entitlement and superiority over the other child. Will they be upset and disappointed if the other child does not share? Probably. It’s okay for kids to feel unhappy and upset. It’s human and very normal and will soon pass. But so long as we are there to help them through the process, kids will benefit from normal feelings of disappointment. When we are not around to sooth them, we want them to be able to handle life’s bumps when things do not go their way.

We also want our kids to be problem solvers. Sometimes, the answer is as simple as both playing with the toy at the same time. If we gently encourage and model compromising and problem solving, the hope is that the children will learn how to do it themselves. These problem solving skills will help them navigate through a variety of life’s experiences and make sure that they can easily work with others.

So let’s reexamine the same situation with Sally and Tommy: Sally is by herself, playing with a toy. Tommy walks up and asks her for it. Sally refuses and Tommy becomes upset. Sally’s mother says something like, “Sally is playing with that right now, but when she is done, you can have a turn.” There is a chance that Tommy will say okay and go about his business. But if he doesn’t, perhaps Sally’s mom will say, “Tommy seems like he is very upset, doesn’t he, Sally? Maybe you and Tommy can think of something else. Sally? What do you think a good compromise would be?”

In this situation, Sally is being directed towards empathy and problem solving and Tommy is learning how to deal with disappointment, hopefully with his own parent right there. Both are learning how to problem solve and compromise, even if they choose not to, simply by taking a moment to consider and think about it.

Instead of waiting until the moment arises, sharing as a topic should be brought up and discussed with kids. Talk with kids about how sharing is just a nice thing to do and that making another people feel happy will feel really good on the inside. It also helps to flip the situation and ask children how they feel with someone shares something with them.

I know that sharing is going to come up again and again in the next several years with Dominik. He will be on both sides of the equation and there will be times when he is sad and disappointed. But I hope that one day, sharing will happen out of the love in his heart rather than his mother’s demands.


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