There is enough to go around. Unless there isn’t, and then we need to just deal.
If you spend any time at all in the modern parenting world, there is a verb you will hear over and over, usually attached to a little child’s name.
“We share our toys, Vivianne.”
“Finn, please share one of your trains with that little girl.”
“You need to share, Magnus.”
“Can you share some of your organic, free-range pizza with your sister, Cooper?”
On the surface, this seems simple enough. I mean, sharing is a nice, lovely thing to teach our children.
I don’t know.
I mean, how would you feel if, every day as you were sitting down to lunch, your boss stopped by and said, “Sarah, you need to share that sandwich with you co-workers.” Or “Steve, please share that bowl of noodles with Kevin. Look how sad he is that he doesn’t have any.”
That would be weird.
(Unless said co-workers were literally starving, and then I like to believe that most human beings know what to do.)
But this idea that we pound into our children to share, share, share is a little unsettling to me.
It’s unsettling because we are giving our children a very strong directive without any context whatsoever. We’re failing to give them internal decision making skills related to when to share, how much to share, and what to do when it doesn’t feel safe to share, etc.
We’re placing a standard on them that we don’t hold ourselves to – to share everything, all the time – and teaching them that if they don’t, they’re bad.
This can have so many outcomes, many of which we perhaps never intended.
Like adults who have a hard time saying no to others.
Or children who rebel and don’t want to share anything.
Or endless amounts of guilt around whether we are doing enough in and for the world.
Or the inability of teens and young adults and adults to say no in sexual relationships.
(My intent is not to be reductionist in this area. I know that the above issues have many causes. But I’m starting to recognize that what we teach our children about sharing does play a role.)
While I’m still learning as I go, here are some ideas about what we can maybe do instead of just saying the S word 500 times a day:
1. First and foremost, back up a little.
At a local play space we frequent, it is not uncommon to see five kids playing at a train table and then at least two parents hovering over the table, narrating their child’s every move (“Ian, we share our trains with the other kids.” “Samantha, move over to give that boy some space.” “No, McKenna, that’s not yours.” blah blah blah.)
Two things about this:
a) If they don’t already, Ian, Samantha, and McKenna are going to need anxiety medication fairly soon, because can you imagine someone hovering over your shoulder and talking to you like that all the time?
b) When we stand back and let kids negotiate something like a train table themselves, they actually really do figure it out most of the time. When left to their own devices, children naturally learn to navigate the world as it exists for so many adults.
They learn how to handle it when others don’t share (e.g., children will often walk away and find something else to do), how to ask for things from other people, and how to decide when and with whom they want to share. For most kids, when left uninterrupted, these things are no big deal and help build some great decision making and boundary setting skills.
So perhaps, if we only do one thing, we can learn to give our children a little more space to figure it out on their own.
2. When we have more than one child, we can stop encouraging them to share everything with each other.
The other day, my daughter was eating a sandwich. Her brother wanted some. Because I was tired and didn’t feel like listening to an argument, I said, “Come on, just share some.” She looked and me and yelled, “But I don’t want to share!”
Message received. She was eating her sandwich and I was asking her to share in order to make my life easier. Not really the best teaching on my part.
We can also respect this instinct in younger, pre-verbal children when they don’t want to share. Instead of teaching them that they are bad for having this instinct, we can realize that very often, they are picking up on and rejecting our manic energy about why we need them to share in the first place (so other people don’t think we are bad parents!, so we don’t feel awkward around our friends and their kids, etc.)
Smart kids. We really could learn from them.
3. We can talk to our children, when they are old enough to understand, about how to make decisions around sharing. We can talk to them about when they feel the urge to share, when they do not, how to manage other people’s disappointment or frustration, etc.
In this conversation, we can also talk to them about the importance of staying in our own lane – if Suzy and her mom are having a disagreement about what she can bring to school for lunch (she wants chips, mom packs carrots), we can teach our children that it is not their business to get involved and fix that for Suzy by giving her our chips. Especially when we love our chips.
Also – and this is so important – we can talk to them about what to do when it does not feel safe to share. Doing so is a key building block for so many things that keep us healthy as adults, not the least of which is maintaining healthy physical boundaries, which can help preserve our energy, prevent sexual assault and abuse, etc.
These are my ideas. But I am still learning and fighting the urge to tell my children about 500 times a day just to share, dammit! So I’d love to know if you have other ideas or thoughts about how to raise children that have a healthy relationship with boundaries and decision making related to sharing.
If you do, please share in the comments section.
But, you know, only if you want to.