Fair Is Fair

Sharing is hard. I don't know a toddler who ever truly did a very good job of it. It goes against their very nature. And lately I've begun to wonder why we even try to teach it at that age. Wouldn't it make more sense to just get through the day peacefully, offer reminders, hints of how nice it feels to hand something over, and turn our efforts toward distracting the little person from his targeted item?

One mother of two boys--ages two and four--recently posted the following message on an e-mail discussion list for parents: "I have always found that in teaching children to 'share' with other children, we are often trying to make them do something which we wouldn't dream of doing ourselves. I have always maintained that if a stranger asked me for my car keys, wallet, diary, or (egads!) to hold my baby, I wouldn't dream of parting with my stuff (or child), yet we expect our children to do this joyfully."

I believe that babies and children naturally strive for independence--that they will wean when they are ready, walk when they are ready, talk when they are able, and that they will feel more secure for having not been forced. Why not the same with sharing? I want my children to know they can count on me to respect their dignity as complete human beings, and that means finding creative ways of getting through conflicts regarding the issue of sharing. It means doing the hard work of parenting during periods where a gap exists between social mores and my child‚s developmental pace.

When my child has an item that another wants, I periodically and matter-of-factly remind him that there is another child waiting for a turn. Often, this is obvious, as the other child is wailing. Other times, a reminder--after two or four or ten minutes of playtime--is just what was needed for him to happily give the other child a go. Even if the other child has stopped asking for it, I remind. I like it when I see the pleasure on the face of my older son as he shares. I think that's the pleasure that keeps him doing it, the force that now--at age four--has him doing it without reminders.

With my toddler, when other children will be visiting and I know there are special belongings that will inevitably cause anxiety, we agree to put them away before our guests arrive. How many of us can say we would gladly offer our guests our most favorite treat hidden in the back of the cabinet? Not to mention our precious keepsakes or favorite coffee mug, cherished for reasons sometimes no one else would understand. (Why is my one-year-old so enamored of our broom, anyway?!)

And the toughie: When my child grabs a toy out of the hands of another child, I don't physically force him to give it back. I verbally remind him that he should, and that grabbing is unkind, against our family rules, and rude. When he refuses still, there is tension. So there I am looking at a crying child--someone else's crying child--longing for the toy my kid wrongly snatched and is refusing to return. But I never take it out of his hands against his will. A few of my friends understand my reasoning, and a couple of them share it. In most cases, though, it's very awkward. I feel sorry for my son's behavior, and self-conscious about the other parent's perception of my discipline techniques. Nevertheless, I don't spank my children when they hit, and I don't grab toys that they have grabbed. Will he ever believe that grabbing is wrong if I do it to him each time he does it to someone else?

Instead, I sympathize with the wronged child, and express my sorrow for her/him. I may even say to my son, "I won't grab that truck back from you, because grabbing is very unkind. But I sure do wish you would give it back and ask for a turn instead." Typically, he returns the toy quite soon. Occasionally he doesn't. And it isn't fair. Sometimes we can distract the offended child, offering different playthings or something to eat. It still isn't fair, but at least I haven't added to the injustice of the situation.

Sharing is hard.


Amy Scott is a writer and mother who lives in Cincinnati, Ohio, with her family. She is the publisher of Wears the Baby, an online magazine of mindful parenting at www.wearsthebaby.com.

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