When my daughter was a toddler, she would have play dates with her toddler friends. As the kids would work together to assemble pizzas made of play-dough, the parents would sink into the couch, pop open cans of rosé, and engage in meaningful adult conversation.
Just kidding, it was never like that! Instead, these frenetic gatherings would usually consist of a lot of toy-grabbing, crying, and mums and dads jumping in to referee the situation.
"Look, she wants to play with the squishy caterpillar now. You need to share!"
"No, it's OK! He had it first. Delia, remember to share!"
In the end, the kids would be frustrated and the adults would pack up their things and give a halfhearted, "That was fun. We should do it again some time."
In life, generosity is a good thing. Nancy Eisenberg, who studies childhood sympathy and empathy, found that children become more generous when they have experience of giving to others and learning how good that feels - but there is a catch. The catch is that it must be voluntary.
If you have kids, you have crying. They cry because their brother got to the door first, because they tried to ride two scooters at once and fell, because they are dressed as Batman but do not want to be addressed as Batman by other shoppers in the supermarket. There are so many reasons to cry! And when you've had it up to here with the squabbling and fighting and crying - especially about some nonsense you don't have time for, like who pressed the elevator button - it's really easy to say (or scream) 'stop crying!'
Forcing a child to give up their toy/iPad/last peanut butter pretzel in the name of sharing not only leaves a kid resentful and less likely to share, but also denies them the opportunity for developing real-world social maturity. Parenting educator Janet Lansbury writes that such adult intervention often convinces kids that 1) they always need a grownup to determine fairness, 2) the material object is more important than engaging with each other, and 3) all "struggle" should be avoided. In the words of the late early childhood educator Magda Gerber, "Struggle is a normal part of human relations." The earlier kids understand this, Gerber believed, the better off they will be.
Here's what to say instead of "share":
Nothing - Just Hang Back and Wait
It can be tough to not jump in at every conflict, especially if your kid is the one taking the toy. Lansbury suggests approaching the other parent with a question such as, "Do you want me to stop struggles immediately, or give them a chance to work things out?" If the other parent wants you to intervene, go ahead and do so. "I believe in protecting our children from being perceived as bullies or brats," Lansbury writes.
But if all the parents are on board with hanging back, simply stay close and see if the children can handle it themselves. Lansbury adds that if the kids start physically fighting, then definitely, by all means, intervene.
'Sportscast' the Situation
This simply means stating what's happening in a neutral tone, like a sportscaster. For instance, "Emmeline and Jake want the same fire engine." This allows their concerns be heard without you entering in as the ruling party.
'Wait Until She Is Done'
Heather Shumaker, author of It's OK Not to Share and Other Renegade Rules for Raising Competent and Compassionate Kids is a proponent of "child-directed turn-taking". A kid who is playing with a toy can simply take a long turn. "When a child is engaged in imaginative play or her own exploration of the world, that's the highest form of learning that she can be doing at that moment, and she's doing it," Shumaker tells Mother magazine. "So, interrupting her is not only disrespectful, it can interrupt learning."
If a child has been waiting for a long time, he can voice his frustrations. "This helps kids who take long turns learn that their actions impact others," Shumaker explains on her website. "Meanwhile, the waiting child is learning delayed gratification and how to cope with negative emotions - vital life skills." For groups of kids, she recommends making a waiting list where kids can write down their names and check to see when they're up next.
Eventually, kids will want to share as adults model how to share. You can tell your kids how good you feel when you share something, or when someone shares something with you. They will pick up on the generous vibes, and who knows? They may even give you the bigger half of the cookie next time.