Why I Don’t Force My Kids To Share Their Toys

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It was a sunny afternoon and I was sitting at the lake watching my kids play. They were playing with a group of kids who were visiting from a local tourist park. Don’t you just adore how kids can make instant besties with people they’ve never met before? It fascinates me. There were about eight new little friends playing together – sand toys, baby spades, buckets and a beach ball. All was good. For the moment…

I heard a commotion between two children and out of the corner of my eye I noticed a mother rush over to provide mediation. The conflict in progress was over the one beach ball that little Sally had carried all by herself, so that she could play with it. Trouble is, the other kid decided she wanted it now. I heard the mother telling Sally, “We need to share.”

I couldn’t help but notice how quickly little Sally’s emotions escalated. “Sally, share. Let her have a turn,” persisted the mother. Little Sally had a strong grip on the beach ball. “No, it’s mine,” she replied, with tears beginning to form.

I started to feel for this little girl. She looked about four years old. Her thoughts and feelings were not validated as her toy was taken from her. The thing is, Sally hadn’t developed the capacity to understand why she should “share” (aka, give up her toy). Her expression was a mixture of “but why?” and “how unfair.” Frustrated and confused. Which I thought was fair enough.

Right now, you might be thinking to yourself how sharing is something kids need to be taught, and every parent needs to focus on this. Well, you’d be right. I’m all for sharing. However, in the real world, you are not forced to give up prized possessions wholly owned by you, simply because another person has the desire to have that item.

So, no. I will not force my child to share.

I ask you this…

Isn’t our job as parents to raise a child who will be ready for the real world?

In the real world, we have choices, and others respect our choice and autonomy. Why should we treat our children differently? An adult’s choice to share, be kind, generous and humble has developed over time. I do encourage my children to share, be kind, giving and humble, by helping them develop empathy and altruistic values. I don’t believe in forcing them to give up their stuff just because another kid wants it though. And I certainly don’t believe in making them feel as if their thoughts and emotions are unheard and invalid.

The development of ‘sharing’

Sharing is a skill that develops as a child’s intellect develops. A child’s ability to show selflessness and empathy, and to understand why it is kind to share, doesn’t occur overnight. It is a process. As a child develops altruism and empathy, they will be willing to share.

Let’s talk empathy. Between the ages of two and four, children start to become aware of their own emotions. Between the ages of five and seven, children start developing compassion and the capacity to read emotional cues from others. The foundation of empathy begins here, and we can’t expect children to share without this. This has been shown in research conducted by Fehn and Rockenbach (2008) where only 8.7% of three- and four-year-olds were willing to share, which increased dramatically to 45% of seven and eight-year-olds.

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Just like any other skill, it takes time. It can’t be forced. Just like you can’t force a child to be brave by placing them high in a tree branch. Just like you can’t make a child assertive by putting them in front of an audience with a microphone. Likewise, you can’t make a child share by taking away their right to say no. When they are better able to understand the principle, they are better able to control their selfishness and they will share. Not convinced?

Reasons why you should not force a child to share.

1. They are human, they have rights.

Just because they are tiny people doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be treated as humans with voices and rights. Children are not simply little puppets here to obey us. It is our job to encourage them to make their own good choices and form their own morals of right and wrong. It is our job to raise them to understand that they have rights: No one can force them to do something they aren’t comfortable with. This applies to all sorts of awful situations that we aim to protect our children from. No one can force you into something – you have a choice – you have a right to say no.

Therefore, I believe it is totally contradictory to teach a child this, but then force them to share and take away their right to say no. The right for a child to have autonomy. We need to show our children that we believe they are capable of making good choices, and speaking their own truth, by letting them.

2. Show them respect.

Following on from basic rights and autonomy comes showing our children that we respect them. Forcing is forcing. Period. By forcing a child to share, you are denying their feelings and beliefs. This gives them a sense of disrespect. To show a child respect, we need to validate them.

Put your own thoughts to the side. You might think the toy is so trivial and silly; why should they get so damn upset over a beach ball? But that is based upon your own view. To the child, this might feel important and mean a huge deal to them. If you respect someone, you would acknowledge their thoughts and emotions, and validate how they feel. You would listen to them. Even if the act of sharing will comfort another child, and even if it would be a nice gesture to share, you need to respect your child’s experience of the situation.

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3. The Era of Entitlement.

We have all heard people claim this is the era of entitlement. Well, it applies here as well. Since when did another child’s wishes make them entitled to another child’s toy? We should not stomp all over a child’s right to say no, at the drop of a hat, just because little Johnny wants that ball and has turned on the tears. The lesson of patience is an important one. You are not entitled to everything you want the moment you think you should have it. By forcing a child to share, you are pretty much saying someone is entitled to their stuff just because they want it. Doesn’t that also imply to them that the other child is more important than them? To me, it suggests, “You aren’t entitled to say no, but they are entitled to your toy.” That seems pretty ridiculous.

If it were the opposite way around, I would not allow my child to take another child’s toy if they refused to share. They said no! Fair enough, let’s find something else to play with and respect their choice.

4. It’s the real world.

Have you ever taken another person’s stuff in the real world? Do you think it’s acceptable to take something that someone else is already using, just because you want it? You would be doing your child a great disservice to teach them that they can take other people’s things when they wish, or take something another person is using, even when they’re told no. In the real world you have ownership of your possessions and people respect that. Adults don’t just irrationally come and “share” your possessions, and no one in the real world forces you to.

Similarly, when it comes to using things (say for instance a printer at work, or the trolley at the supermarket), adults don’t just go up and take it because they need it now. “Oh, hi lady doing her shopping, take out your bread and cereal, I need that trolley now because there are no vacant ones.” You get the point. So, let’s just be realistic about what we’re teaching our children. Patience, respect … simple.

5. They aren’t developmentally ready to share.

As I explained earlier, this is a skill that develops as a child’s cognitive structures develop. Children, particularly younger children, just don’t get it. We accept that babies are born with the basic instinct to survive, and toddlers have the undesirable selfish notion that the whole world revolves around them. Why do we then expect a child to suddenly graduate from being a selfish toddler into a completely rational, reasonable, emotionally intelligent person who understands how important it is to be generous and selfless? Psychologically, this does not happen. Thus, we need to be accepting of where our child’s “sharing ability” is within their level and stage of development.

6. There is a hidden meaning.

There might be an important and legit reason why they don’t want to share. Sometimes children get possessive over toys because they have special meaning to them. Sometimes children are just particular and fussy about their possessions, and like to look after them or use them in only one way. You don’t know what they are thinking, and why they don’t want to share, unless you ask and listen.

Who knows? Maybe it was a gift, maybe it has a hidden meaning to them, or they just cherish it. Maybe they know something you don’t, like that little Johnny actually plans to throw the ball into the lake or give it to the dog. Just like showing respect, you need to try and understand that their world is different from yours, and you don’t really know what is going on unless you ask.

What to do instead …

I do encourage sharing. I try and help my children understand how nice it is to share and include everyone in play. I make suggestions. I point out and praise sharing. I identify positive feelings when they are associated with sharing.

However, if my child doesn’t want to share something, it’s no big deal. I respect that and ask them to put it away or give it to me until they are alone, so it doesn’t cause conflict. I try to encourage them to play with things that can be enjoyed by others. Of course, it doesn’t always work and there are times of disappointment.

For me, though, the most important thing is to help my children develop empathy and understanding of what other children might be feeling, or how they’d feel if it were them. I want to encourage noble and fair values. My now ten-year-old often takes his football to school so he can share it and have a game with his class. Sometimes he takes an extra Beyblade to school for the kid who doesn’t own one, and he will offer the last glass of juice to me when the bottle is nearly empty.

Sharing comes. It shouldn’t be forced.