Parenting

I Am So Sick and Tired of People Telling Kids to Share

[Getty Images] A two-month-old baby Barbary macaque begins climbing practice on a fallen tree just a few inches above the forest floor in Staffordshire, England.

I am so sick and tired of people telling kids to share. I mean, when did “sharing” come to mean arbitrarily giving up something that you own and were playing with, to someone who is going to run away with it indefinitely? Is there some other, “parent” definition of sharing? Did I miss that day in Parenting 101?

“Let’s share, Emily!” the other mother says, swooping down on her toddler who is happily playing with her plastic elephant under the jungle gym at the playground. “Let’s give this little boy a turn!”

The little boy in question is my son. He’s been inching his way closer to Emily (whom he’s never met before) for the past five minutes, hopefully eyeing her elephant but making absolutely no eye contact with Emily herself imagining, I’m sure, that she won’t see him if he just doesn’t look at her. He’s now close enough that his desire to play with the elephant would be clear to anyone watching and Emily’s mother has intervened.

“It’s okay, he doesn’t . . .” I start to say, but it’s too late. “Come on!” Emily’s mother is saying, pulling Emily up from her absorbed squat into the light of day where she has absolutely no idea what is going on and was the only person in the playground who hadn’t noticed my son’s interest in her toy. “Give your elephant to the little boy!”

Then, of course, there is a scuffle. The elephant is ripped from Emily’s hand. Emily is screaming. My son is triumphantly running off with the elephant. And, as I follow my son (to get the elephant back), I hear the other mother say, “But Emily, we have to share!”

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for sharing. But not this strange, mutant version of sharing. Imagine if grown ups had to behave the way we are asking kids to. If, for example, you were sitting on a park bench engrossed in your book, no one would come up to you and say, “That man over there seems really interested in the book you’re reading. Why don’t you share it with him?” You would never be expected to hand over your book to a total stranger so that he could read it instead of you. You’d just get to keep reading your book oblivious to the other person’s interest in it.

Look, I’m not saying we should teach our kids to be misers, or to never let others play with their things or to yell “Mine!” every time they see another kid coming even a little bit close to them. But I am questioning why we parents seem to feel that everything must belong to everyone. It was Emily’s elephant, not my son’s.

From Emily’s perspective, she was happily playing with her elephant at the park when, all of a sudden, it was ripped from her hands and placed in the hands of a stranger who ran off with it. If Emily’s mother hadn’t been involved, Emily would be justified in assuming she’d been mugged.

There really was no sharing involved at all. Only a transfer of possession from the person who actually owns the toy to someone who has no claim on it at all. Which isn’t fair.

The problem, I think, for parents, is that children at this age aren’t actually capable of sharing. They can take turns, they can give things to each other if they’re done with them, they can run after the same pigeon, but it’s pretty rare that they are successfully able to both play with the same toy at the same time.  

So, as responsible parents who want our children to grow up to be kind and caring adults, we’ve gone just a little overboard in the sharing department. But it stands to reason that the rules of propriety we are trying to teach our kids are the same ones we, as grown ups, abide by now (if we are polite adults).

My son hadn’t even asked for the elephant. If he had, I would have told him it was Emily’s. I might have said something like, “That’s Emily’s elephant. If you’d like to play with it, you could ask her, but if she says no then you have to move on.” And Emily’s mother could have supported Emily to think about offering my son a turn with the elephant when she was done with her game. It’s not that we shouldn’t be generous, it’s that we shouldn’t steal things from small children.

If something is yours, it’s yours. If someone takes it from you, even to give it to an adorable little boy with hopeful eyes, that’s theft. Just thought I’d share.