Why I’m not teaching my baby to share

“No, she was playing with that! Share, share!” the other mom said, returning the piece of yellow plastic that her son had just gleefully commandeered from my ten-month-old daughter’s hand. My daughter didn’t really seem to notice or care that he had taken it, and seemed equally nonplussed to have it returned to her. Satisfied with her intervention, the mom continued talking with her friend about the many challenges of being a stay at home mom.

As a parent and parent educator, I see this type of interaction occur frequently and predictably. I empathize the parental response and recognize its motives; it starts as a sense of panic that the person’s child (and, therefore by extension, the parent him or herself) will be perceived as having done something wrong or bad, or perhaps the other child will become upset. I recognize that we all want our children to grow up to be high-functioning, socially appropriate little members of society, and I understand the seeds of fear that lie in the small moments where we worry that our precious darlings are actually sociopathic tyrants-in-the-making.

So I get it.  But I’m still not teaching my baby to share.  Or any of the babies in my parenting classes, for that matter.

This doesn’t mean sharing isn’t important to me. Although this is a big world, it’s not big enough for all of us to avoid conflict indefinitely.  To be sure, it’s coming.  But I don’t really see “sharing” as synonymous with conflict resolution.  Instead, the way it’s used on playgrounds and in parks, I can imagine it occurring to a small child sort of like this:

Parent: Hey, you know that thing you were playing with that you really, really liked?

Child: Oh, yeah, I love that thing!

Parent: Great. Now give it to that other kid.

Child: Ummm, why?

Parent: Because sharing.

Child: Yeah, um, nope.

Not particularly convincing, to my ears. Especially when we’re dealing with a human being who’s relatively new at being able to exist in the world with a sense of agency: being able to engage in goal-directed behavior. Up until a certain point, no matter how badly they want something, kids simply lack the ability to go and get it. Once they do, the spoils of their efforts are hard-earned.

Don’t get me wrong, I want my child to be able to address her needs and desires, even when they compete with those of others—but in a peaceful manner.  This is what I’m teaching her instead of sharing. And I fully trust she has the ability to do this. How do I know this? Because I see it happen every day.  I take every chance I can to gently invite parents to refrain from invoking sharing, and when I do, magic happens.

Most infants don’t take it especially personally when something is taken from them, and although toddlers and older children can become upset by such an interaction, parental intervention (and arbitrary proclamations over who should have what and when) only serves to intensify such feelings.  In either case, young children of all ages can be equally diplomatic when trying to get a desired object back. Many will offer another toy in return, some will settle for the opportunity to play mutually with a toy, others will sit back and watch the other child interact with the toy in his or her own way, and the rest will wander off to find something else interesting to do. The children, in other words, are capable of figuring it out, all on their own.

Also, we underestimate the immense social value of this kind of interaction. Most young children learn to engage with each other indirectly at first, through what’s known as parallel play. In my parenting classes, I often hear parents remark, “They don’t seem to notice each other much.” This is true, but they do notice when another has a toy that interests them. And negotiating the use of that toy gets them to notice one another. I find what happens next so thrilling to watch, and as long as a watchful adult is nearby to prevent anyone from hitting, most of the time we will see a beautiful diplomatic encounter that involves no small amount of generosity, acceptance, and equanimity.

Now those are some skills that I want my child to possess: the ability to express her desires clearly, to recognize the desires of others, and to wrestle patiently and wholeheartedly with another until an agreeable compromise is achieved.  With these tools firmly in hand, I know my child will grow both as a person and as a citizen of the world, ready to take on its inequities with confidence and kindness.

Further reading on this topic:

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