True Sharing Can’t Be Taught

By Shoshana Hayman, director of The Life Center/Israel Center for Attachment Parenting,

When educational television tries to teach young children to share, it’s helpful for parents to know how the desire to share really develops in children.

My two granddaughters, five and three years old, recently watched a program that talked about sharing. No sooner did the show end, when the girls had a fight over a game they didn’t want to share. Oops! So much for the half-hour lesson on sharing! If I hadn’t learned from Gordon Neufeld, PhD, how children develop the capacity and desire to share, I would have been very frustrated, wondering why the girls weren’t implementing what they had just “learned” five minutes ago from the colorful and engaging television program.

Sharing isn’t something that is learned. True sharing comes from feelings of caring, together with the ability to think about the “yes” and “no” feelings of sharing. In other words, when you care about someone, you will want to share with him.

Ah, but that is not enough! There may be reasons why you don’t want to share at this particular time, and now you must weigh these considerations and decide if you will share, when you will share, and how much you will share. There are sophisticated emotions and thoughts, contradicting each other, that must mix together in the brain during this process: “On the one hand, I’d like to give it to him. On the other hand, I haven’t finished using it myself. Oh, but what if he breaks it? Now I remember I promised my little brother I’d let him use it first!”

In fact, a child’s brain is not even ready for this task of taking all of these things into consideration before the age of five years old, and then, like a muscle, this part of the brain must be exercised so the growing child can take into consideration many things at once. This is called integrative thinking – a level of maturity that takes time to develop, and requires of parents to be patient and trust in the process.

Efforts in creating programs to teach sharing to preschoolers may be doing more harm than good. We are setting up an expectation that children are capable of mature behavior that is not realistic for their age. This creates frustration for parents, which they may dump onto their children. We put pressure on children to make them share by telling them it “makes Mommy happy,” “you’re the big girl now and you should know better,” or “if you want people to share with you…” without realizing that this hijacks the child’s own budding spirit of wanting to share with others. Now, he may be sharing, not because he cares and wants to, but rather because he wants to gain approval. This kind of sharing turns the quality of giving to others into a selfish act rather than an altruistic one. The child’s own ability to decide if he can indeed share and still respect his own limits has now been compromised.

It’s important to remember that when we expect a child to share before he is developmentally ready, we may be inhibiting his true spirit of caring. Instead of sharing because he cares, he now shares because he wants to gain approval, thus turning sharing into a selfish act rather than an altruistic one.  We can be assured that if we are caring toward our children and guide them in a spirit of caring, their own spirit of caring will develop, and as they mature and develop integrative thinking, we will see the fruits: caring that comes naturally and spontaneously from their hearts.

7 thoughts on “True Sharing Can’t Be Taught”

  1. Any ideas from people about what to do in situations with other kids and parents who aren’t on this same page about not teaching sharing? Do you intervene when other kids want a toy your child has? Or when another parent asks their kids to share with yours? Do you speak to the other parent, the other child, or both?

  2. Very well said, thank you! I also think caring and subsequent sharing is something children can learn when their parents model the same behavior towards others 🙂

  3. Nice sentiment, but it doesn’t help me in the moment when my 3 year old literally throttles the 1 year old for touching her toys. What do I do for the next two years!? I wish you had discussed helping kids navigate through the practicalities of playdates, siblings, etc.

  4. So, how do we go about our child taking away something that is used by another child or not used, but not theirs? To me, these are aspects of sharing as well.
    I find it difficult to think about my daughter taking away toys from children – specifically in daycare. The attitude and opinion is that children have to learn to assert themselves, but I don’t think that taking away a toy someone else is using will do that.
    The daycare my daughter is attending is not aware of the AP concept as far as I know (and I have little hope they will treat my daughter “differently”). However, I wanna make sure that I make the best of AP with her when she’s with me and that includes making sure she knows that taking other children’s toys or not sharing is not right and certainly NOT asserting herself.
    Will I go wrong if I tell her not to take toys from other kids just to counteract the idea she gets from daycare?

  5. This was a lovely article. We have limited our interventions to giving language options. Giving them phrases for asking for a toy, refusing to give it up, asking for a turn when they’re done etc. the only rule we have is “don’t grab!”. Oh, and at the park, i just talk to the other kids snd let them know how it rolls. If parents get involved saying things like “oh thats ok, honey share your toy with that littke boy”, i say something aljbv the lines of “oh, thats not necessary, hes allowed to say no, oliver knows how to wait his turn until your son is finished with it”. Good luck other moms!

  6. I really loved the sentiment of this article and yet would also like to hear about some tools parents can use. When my child (now 4 years old) wants a toy that someone else is using I say, “She/he is not ready to share that with you, perhaps if we ask in a few minutes he/she will be ready”, and we move on. If he is sad or cries I just repeat myself and at this age he is usually okay with waiting.

    Sometimes the other parent will intervene and demand that their child share which is disheartening to me and I just tell that parent that my son can wait. Oftentimes, especially when we are at the park playing among other children we don’t know, the other child with the toy will come over to my son soon thereafter and give it to him on their own!

    In the reverse situation, when another child wants something from my son, I say the same thing to that child whether we know the other child or not and I say, “My son isn’t ready to share that toy yet, you can try asking again in a little while”. I think it’s really important to honor the development of both children in these situations. I thank API for providing the articles and resources on this subject before I even knew all the politics that playgrounds had in store for us!

    And, in reference to Maria who commented earlier, asserting oneself does not mean taking something out of someone’s hands, it means using one’s words to ask for what one wants and that is something you can teach your daughter. By telling her to not take or grab a toy you are teaching her good socialization skills and there is no harm in that!

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