Parenting: On Sharing

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Sharing is a tricky topic; oftentimes we, as parents, place high value on our children’s ability to generously share their prized possessions during play dates and outings. But should we force our children to share? An unconventional view, below. 

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First: the development piece. In order to share genuinely and truly from the heart, a child must be developmentally ready. Oftentimes (and much to the chagrin of parents) this means a toddler or young preschool-aged child is nowhere near being ready to share! This is difficult when we as parents want our children to be kind, generous, and aware of others’ needs and desires. But sharing, like any other skill, takes time and practice to develop, and there are times when we should support our child’s choice not to share.

For the child in the First Plane of Development (in particular the first half of this plane: the 0-3 year age range), sharing is quite difficult. During ages 0-3, a child is in the stage of the unconscious being. An unconscious being is solely engaged in the construction of the self; he is learning who he is in relation to his environment, and thus not yet able to take into consideration other people’s thoughts and feelings.

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Once a child is in the 3-6 age range, he begins to develop the ability to share. However, this is a time for teaching, not forcing. A child who is forced to share and constantly managed by an adult will often develop the idea that he is not in charge of his things, and may begin hoarding them in order to avoid them being taken away. This, obviously, is undesirable behavior.

Children develop a strong sense of fairness as they grow older. In effect, being forced to share can be translated to them as others can take what they want from me, but I may not take from them. This, obviously, does not seem fair, and goes against their understanding of the term. Imagine if someone walked up to you today and demanded your car keys, stating that he would like to share your car for a few hours? Then imagine that someone else stepped in after you said “No, sorry, I’d like to use my car today” and took your car keys from your hands, handed them to the other person, turned to you, and said, “We need to share with others, you know.”  How infuriating would that be?! How unfair is this scenario? It is the same feeling for a child when he is forced to share.

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Aside from these reasons, there is another important perspective worth taking. Do we want our children to believe that if they want something that someone else has, they have a right to walk up and take it from them simply because they want it? This is not representative of how the grown up world works, so shouldn’t we prepare a child for the reality that there will be plenty of times he will not get what he wants?

And yet, of course, we want to encourage our children to share, on their terms, and for the right reasons. Below, some tips on how to encourage your young child to share, without forcing him or her to do so.

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Encourage a mindset of giving.
Make giving a priority in your child’s life both by demonstrating generosity yourself, and by giving to others in moments when it is unexpected and not asked for. For instance, dropping by the neighbor’s house with fresh-baked cookies or drawing a picture ahead of time to share with a playmate are both instances of sharing that do not conflict with your child’s idea of fairness. No one is forcing the child to give up something he has in the moment; rather, he is sharing of his own volition, in his own way. Montessori education meets the giving mindset through lessons of Grace and Courtesy.

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Use the idea of turn-taking as a way to introduce sharing.*
Discuss with your child the importance of taking turns, especially when in neutral territory. We all understand the fairness of letting another child use the monkey bars or waiting your turn in line at the drinking fountain. Use positive reinforcement when your child waits her turn, and when your child offers another child the space and time to use his turn.

Choose wisely.
Prepare your child in advance for play dates by allowing her to put away in advance anything she would like to remain private, or does not feel like sharing that day. If she would rather not share her brand new prized possession with her friend, that’s okay, and you will probably help head off any conflicts around sharing it if you allow her to put it out of reach or sight beforehand. Similarly, if you are headed to the playground, allow your child to think about what toys he may want to bring, and what he may want to leave behind.

Discuss, discuss, discuss.
Make time to discuss how others may feel when we share with them, and how it feels to be shared with. Associate positive feelings with sharing! In addition to sharing/not sharing, we need to discuss how rotten it feels when someone grabs something we are working with. In this way, we can encourage empathy in our children and naturally discourage grabbiness. It is equally important to teach our children to be assertive when someone grabs something from them. Give children some words to use in these situations: for instance, “Excuse me, I was not finished with that. I’m happy to share it with you once I’m finished using it,” may work in some instances.

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Step in when necessary; gently guide your child while in conflict.
If two children are arguing about sharing an item, help them through the conflict, but only step in if the situation is escalating and it is clear that the problem is not going to be resolved without the help of an adult or mediator. Sometimes using “observing words” helps. For instance, saying “I see that both you and John would like a turn with the ball. What should we do?” can empower both children to come up with a solution together. “How about John has a turn for five minutes with the ball, then it will be your turn for five minutes?” 

Rest assured that while your young child may be hesitant to share at first, as he grows older, becomes socialized, and understands the give and take of friendship and social reciprocity, he will develop the skills necessary for sharing, and it will be much more meaningful and heartfelt if he experiences the freedom to make the choice on his own.

*Starting in the Children’s House, children as young as two years old are introduced to the idea of turn-taking; Montessori materials must be shared, as there is often only one “set” of something on a shelf. In this way, children learn to wait their turn for a work, and to choose something else in the meantime!