Why kids shouldn’t be forced to share

A few weeks ago, my toddler was scooping sand at the park. Another two-year-old walked over and stood nearby, clearly wanting to have a turn with the shovel. I told LO, “It looks like he wants to play too. Do you want to take turns scooping the shovel? Maybe you can hand him the shovel so he can scoop, and when he’s done, you can take a turn.” He obliged and handed the boy his shovel. They continued taking turns, handing the shovel back and forth to each other as each one finished his turn.

Then more recently, my toddler was spinning the steering wheel at the playground. As he walked a few steps away, another little boy came up and said he wanted to spin the wheel too. I asked the boy, “Do you want a turn?” LO looked on and said his own name, as if saying, “That’s mine.” I told him, “He’s taking a turn at the wheel. When he’s ready to move on, then it can be your turn again.” The boy spun the wheel for a bit and then left, so LO started spinning the wheel again.

I don’t want to force my toddler to share; I want to give him an opportunity to willingly share when he’s ready. He’s likelier to have a favorable view of sharing when he’s taken the initiative on his own. If he’s forced to share, he’ll end up thinking that this sharing business maybe isn’t all that great after all.

I’ve also noticed that kids are abruptly forced to give up their toy when they were probably absorbed in that project. I wouldn’t want to cut my toddler off from focusing on and finishing a task (filling up a bucket with sand, for instance) only to have his work whisked away (because another boy wanted a turn with the bucket). I’ve seen kids pouting at having to give up toys for good reason: they weren’t finished learning or playing yet!

Along the same lines, I wouldn’t want my toddler to give up an item because I want him to stand up for what’s important to him. That might seem intense, but if reading a particular book is important to him, I want him to learn that it’s okay to hang on to it. He shouldn’t always have to give up what he wants, or get pushed around, or told to keep quiet. He doesn’t have to be mean about it—I still want a polite boy—but he should still know that his feelings and wants are valid and if he has enough conviction for something he should learn how to hold on to them.

And when the opportunity comes up to share, I ask my toddler if he wants to share his toys rather than simply offering it to another kid without his consent. This is a simple act of respect. I can’t imagine adults forcing one another to share without asking; the same respect should be given to children, too.

Perhaps the biggest crime I would commit by saying the S-word is denying my toddler the experience of sorting out the situation. It’s painful to see him in conflict because I don’t want his feelings hurt, especially over seemingly simple problems. But I try to take a step back and be a moderator or a referee. Let the kids duke it out, I say! So long as they’re not hurting each other, I would rather have the kids fully experience the social encounter—as awkward or difficult it may be for them—instead of having the adults step in for them.

Why do parents feel like good parenting means forcing their kids to share? Maybe it’s because we’ve all been told to share at one point or another in our own childhood. I don’t recall my own childhood experiences, but the common scenario we often see at the playgrounds and where kids convene are parents telling their kids to share. It’s like we’ve accepted that this is normal and the thing to do.

Or maybe because sharing is a wonderful value to instill in our children so we think that we have to drill it in their heads now that that’s the thing to do. While the intent is wonderful, babies and toddlers are far too young to understand the idea of sharing the way adults do. To most babies and toddlers, everything in their sight is theirs for the taking. So when adults hammer in the bit about sharing, they don’t fully understand why they can’t have the toy anymore and become frustrated.

Another possible reason parents force their kids to share is to save face with the other child’s parents. While I don’t force my toddler to share, I admit I have jumped in on other occasions when he’s not behaving properly, as if to tell the other mom, “Oh no, he’s normally an angel. I don’t know why he’s acting this way. This is so not like him!” Maybe when children don’t want to share, their parents jump in and force them to share to prove that they’re not parents to “terrible” children who don’t share.

If I were to force my toddler to share, he may end up thinking that sharing is this terrible thing that happens when you’re forced to give up something that you like. Or he may not learn to fight for what’s important to him. I like the idea of highlighting the benefits of sharing: helping another person feel good, or having a play mate and making the play more fun.

What ways can adults encourage sharing? What do you do when kids are fighting over the same thing? Have you ever dealt with another kid who didn’t want to share, and if so, how did you handle the situation?

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11 thoughts on “Why kids shouldn’t be forced to share

  1. An impressive post, I just gave this to a colleague who is doing a little analysis on this topic. And he is very happy and thanking me for finding it. But all thanks to you for writing in such simple words. Big thumb up for this blog post!

  2. My partner feels the same, he hates the way young kids are expected to share when it’s never expected of adults. We still try to keep things harmonious by use distraction and offering alternatives but think sharing a rather bizarre idea.

  3. Toddlers shouldn’t be expected to share…actually they are developmentally unable to share on their own (without forcing or strong encouragement) until about age 3! So we parents need to relax! They will understand the concept soon enough! Just smile and watch your child grow!

  4. My son (2 1/2) loves to share… but sharing for us doesn’t mean stopping your activity so someone else can do it instead. It means taking turns, or working together to accomplish something. It means one person can use one thing while another uses something else. It means coexisting. It means one cracker each…not giving them all away.

  5. I think it’s all about balance. I don’t expect her to stop her activity and give her toy away but I expect her to allow other children to play with her toys when they come visiting. sharing shouldn’t be only about the here and now but an attitude of courtesy towards other fellow toddlers :-). And I think the sooner they learn it, then easier it will be for them to make friends when they grow up. I don’t agree with “forced sharing” because the kid never learns to do it at his/her own initiative. The stress should be put on the attitude rather than on a random act of sharing, here and there.

  6. Amen, sister! I had to figure my way around this one for a while but soon realized that I don’t always like to share either. And I would totally make J share because it was about relating to the other parents. Now, the thing that I parrot all day long is, “respect the ‘no.’ ” If J wants someone else’s toy, I encourage him to ask “Can I have that please?” and then he has to respect the yes or the no. The harder part for me, for whatever reason, is defending J’s need to say no sometimes. Chalk it up to wanting to be liked, maybe. So it feels like therapy everytime I ask another kid to respect J’s “No.” Coincidentally, I’m learning to respect the “no” too.

    • “Respect the no”: I love this! We just had a similar episode this morning (albeit not a sharing one) where we had to respect my toddler’s no. He was eating yogurt and surprise, he actually said he was done eating even though there was still a few more bites left. My husband started scooping some up and was about to feed it to him when I stopped him and said, “He already said no.”

      I also find that i don’t always respect his no in other ways, and feel like I really need to take a step back whenever he does.
      Anyway, I also love how you have to school the other kids on respecting J’s nos. It’s more tiresome but I think in doing so you help him assert himself and stand up for what he wants, even if it means telling other kids no.

  7. I completely agree, if we always encourage our children to put their needs and wants after others how can we expect them to be assertive and take the lead. I was brought up to share and think of others thoughts before myself which has left me needing to gain approval from everyone and be a bit of a wimp – it is only now that I have stopped sharing and started to be a bit more pushy even if it seems strange at first.

  8. Wow! You have deep thoughts on the playground. I’m usually just trying to sneak the goldfish without getting caught.

    Great writing!

  9. I really like this post. I have 2-year old triplets who are in a unique situation of having to share toys pretty much every minute of the day. I find it’s so much better when they decide to share on there own (with a lot of positive praise) rather than being forced. They are happier with the experience and in return want to share more often.

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