When Sharing is Not Sharing: Wait, Reflect and Protect

When toddlers and very young children get together to play, one of the things that often happens is that two or more children become interested in the same toy.  Many parents and caregivers feel that this is the time to teach our children about sharing.  

So the adults might insist that one child give the toy to another child, or that they take turns and exchange the toy after a short specified time.  If the child does not readily comply the adult will physically take the toy from them. But does this really teach “sharing?” If you mean sharing in the sense that one gives something to another person because they recognize the other person wants it and they understand that desire and seek to please the other person, then NO, that is not what is being taught by adults taking a toy from one child to give it to another.  

What is being taught is that if you are big and strong enough you can take things away from others and choose who to give them to.

Also, if you scream and cry enough someone might take what you want from someone else and give it to you.  

So what can we do instead in these situations?  Wait, reflect and protect.  

Wait to see if the children can work this out together.  If no one is in danger of getting hurt let them express their feelings and needs to one another.  We want to allow children to find solutions to their own problems, rather than looking to us every time something isn’t going their way.  You will appreciate that they have this skill when they get older.  

Reflect, especially with pre-verbal children it can help to simply reflect what you see is happening, i.e. “Kylie has the ball.  Cole wants the ball.  Cole is upset.” Etc…  Be careful not to project on to the situation.  Avoid saying Cole is sad, when in fact Cole might be angry or hurt.  We don’t know, only Cole knows.  

It’s also important not to choose sides.  It is easy for us to identify with the “victim” and put a little extra sympathy in our tone when we are saying Cole is upset.  This only serves to make the other child feel shamed, or ganged up on.  It also makes it seem like being a "victim" is a good thing -- after all you get a little extra love and attention -- and that is something we never want to do.  

Lastly, but most important, we always protect.  If it looks like these conflicts might escalate into something physical where someone could get hurt, it is imperative  to be close by and be able to stop any such actions. Not only do we want to keep everyone safe but it's a matter of trust.  When we approach conflict like this with children we are basically making a deal.  We are saying "I'm going to trust you guys to work it out your own way, and you trust me to keep you safe."  For this to work they must believe we will keep our part of the bargain.

Conflict is something our children will have to face their whole lives.  Yes we need to help them learn how to deal with conflict, but taking every situation out of their hands does not serve to empower them to deal with challenging situations, it only teaches them to look to someone else to solve their problems.  

Children will eventually develop sufficiently so that they can empathize. Most research shows that children aren’t fully capable of that until they are three years old or so.  At that point they get that other people have feelings, and that they can make someone else feel better by sharing with them. Until that time, “sharing” doesn’t mean experiencing the genuine joy that comes through helping others, it just means being forced by an adult.  And being forced can cause resentment. The more a child chooses to share on their own, the more they will experience the self satisfaction that comes with it, and in turn will choose to do it more, allowing the child to develop into a genuinely selfless and kind person.  After all that is what we are trying to “teach,” isn’t it?