My two-year-old started crying minutes after my oldest son unwrapped his birthday presents. He wanted to play with his brother’s newest haul of toys as soon as they came out of their boxes, but his sibling firmly refused his requests. And while I was disappointed that my oldest child didn’t want to share, I couldn’t blame him either. There could be nothing more annoying to a child than being forced to give your toys away to anyone mere minutes after receiving them.
Not sharing with a friend or family member goes against everything that I learned as a child, though. If someone I knew wanted to use something I was using, I understood I should give them a turn without question. As I saw this scenario play out between my children, I asked myself, “Do kids always have to share?”
I took this question to parenting psychologist, best-selling author, and mother of four, Dr. Heather Wittenberg. She explained that instead of forcing children to share, parents should teach the behaviour over time. But she admits that for many parents, that can be easier said than done.
“It’s actually more difficult than potty training because it’s lifelong,” she says. “Sharing is one of the most complex human behaviours, and many folks never get the hang of it.”
Raising young people who consider the well-being of others is one of the reasons that Wittenberg believes in teaching children to share. She offered some tips on how parents can put the practice into action.
Why it’s important to teach kids to share
Sharing falls under the umbrella of the essential social-emotional skills children need to learn to help manage their emotions, feel compassion toward others, and make and keep friends. And while sharing helps promote empathetic behaviour in children, Wittenberg says it occasionally clashes with a child’s need to protect their boundaries. It’s a skill that parents have neglected over the centuries because it can teach children at a young age, particularly girls, that pleasing others is important.
“You can’t truly ‘force’ someone to ‘be nice’ or to care or empathise,” she explains. “You can force them to give up their boundaries and insist they share, even if it feels really wrong to them. But that teaches the wrong lesson, doesn’t it?”
Because children are still developing and learning how to handle themselves socially, forcing them to exhibit an advanced skill like sharing puts them into a losing situation. It will likely lead to tantrums and tears, and telling them to share will only make things worse.
“Rather, coach and encourage side-by-side as they’re in potential sharing situations at the playground or a birthday party,” Wittenberg says.
How can parents “teach” sharing?
Wittenberg stresses that when teaching kids how to share, parents should know that it isn’t a skill that’s learned over a weekend like potty training. Parents will need to exhibit patience, encouragement, repetition — and be willing to demonstrate it in themselves if they want their children to know how important it is for them to learn this empathetic behaviour.
“It’s an incredibly challenging social-emotional behaviour that requires several developmental passes, and lots of trial, error, tons of encouragement, and good modelling from parents,” she says.
And in my situation where I’m teaching my two sons how to share, Wittenberg says it can be more tiresome to teach siblings because they save their best and worst behaviour for each other. Plus, parents tend to more easily lose their patience in these situations because we want our children to get along with each other.
She stresses the need for parents to be up front with their kids and acknowledge how difficult it can be for them to share. But at the same time, let them know how important it is that they learn how to do it. Also, set an example and model the behaviour you want to see from your kids in front of them. Parents can also set up a practice sharing session that you can supervise and coach.
“Call out ‘sharing in the wild’ when you see it,” she adds. “It doesn’t have to be anything major — just a quiet but sincere acknowledgment: ‘Hey, I saw you share your turn with your brother. I know that must have been hard. But you’re getting to be a big kid, and I see you care about your brother. Awesome job.’”