A child who is 3 or 4 can be conditioned to share, to empathize, and to be generous
Don’t force your toddler to share. In fact, don’t encourage it all. It’s not even good for your child. Parents who insist that their kids “take turns” and give up their toys to other children on the playground are doing it mostly because they don’t want to be embarrassed in front of other parents. In short, we promote sharing because it’s easier for us as adults and not because it’s the right thing for a 3- or 4-year-old.
Is this parenting theory the future for young American parents? I hope not, but it’s possible. A number of psychologists, religious educators, and conservative commentators seem to have arrived at a consensus teaching our kids that to share is bad for them, and we need to back off. Such advice would seem to be contrary to conventional wisdom and accepted ethical norms, not to mention just plain common sense. Do we really want “stay away from my stuff” to be the governing rule for children in the sandbox? I remain hopeful that the “no need to share” movement will be no more than a fad.
The anti-sharing crowd offers a number of rationales for its approach. Rachel Boldwyn, writing recently on Christianity Today’s website, makes the following arguments: First, kids are incapable of sharing. A toddler is naturally possessive and should not be expected to act beyond his age. Second, forced sharing or mandated turn-taking is not really sharing at all, but simply means that a child is complying with the demand of a more powerful individual — the parent, or teacher, or caregiver. Third, forcing a child to share disrupts the value that he derives from extended play, truncating his ability to concentrate. According to Boldwyn, the Biblical verse“training up a child in the way he should go” (Proverbs 22:6) means that we must see our children as distinct individuals, separate from their parents, and this means avoiding the notion that they must share because we as parents want them to share.
But Boldwyn misunderstands the passage and the psychology. It’s true that a 2-year-old cannot comprehend sharing and the implications of ownership. It is also true that Biblical ethics cannot simply be imposed; ethical systems work best when a person willingly embraces the values involved. But children are not adults and are not competent to make the range of decisions that adults must make. That is why we are instructed to “train” them in the way they should go.
And this means that a child who is 3 or 4 can be conditioned to share, to empathize, and to be generous. Conditioning will include some mandated turn-taking and forced sharing, but that is what training is about, and what the Biblical text intended. It is also consistent with what child development experts accept as necessary and appropriate. Children are forced to do all kinds of things that are important to their welfare: eat in healthy ways, learn basic manners, and avoid hitting and hazards to their safety. The problem is not the compulsion, but a parent who is harsh rather than firm, or arbitrary rather than caring. A parent who makes a 3-year-old take turns with a toy is not a problem if the parent is loving and models sharing in his own behavior.
Naomi Schaefer Riley, writing in the New York Post, offers yet another reason not to encourage a child to share: It could send a message that all stuff is collectively owned, and that a child is entitled to use it just for being around it. This is absurd. Toddlers by nature are selfish beings; they are concerned with themselves and their own needs. The danger of a nursery school or playgroup, therefore, is not that it will teach our children communism, but that it will fail to teach them the values of love, trust, and generosity that are central to all of the Abrahamic faiths. A major goal of parenting and toddler programs, therefore, is to help children learn the language of “we” rather than “I,” and teaching them to share is part of that.
I recently attended the birthday party of my 3-year-old grandson. When disputes arose over toys, the parents quickly intervened, almost all of them telling their children to take turns and share. The results varied, although the children, despite being “forced” to take turns, in most cases quickly moved on — as children usually do. The parents were of different religious backgrounds, and many of them did not know each other, but it was interesting to see them instinctively and immediately resort to a language intended to promote cooperation and sharing. From what I could see, they reacted as they did not because of their own ego needs or fear of embarrassment but because they thought it was the right thing to do. And it was.
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