How Forcing Kids to Share Is 'Traumatizing' Them

kids fighting

It's an all-too-common scenario: Two kids want to play with the same toy. What's a mom to do? Tell them to share -- and if they resist, enforce this golden rule? Because it's good for kids to share, right? Well, not necessarily. There's been a backlash against sharing of late ... and some experts say it's the last thing parents should push on their kids.


"Parents need to recognize that the 'mine, mine' stage is very important in the toddler years, since it establishes boundaries and belonging," points out Mark Loewen, a therapist in Richmond, Virginia. "Just as we teach a child not to touch something because it's not theirs, children apply that lesson to others who want to touch something they consider their own. Two- or 3-year-olds who don't want to share something are not unkind; they are just establishing their boundaries."

And establishing boundaries is good! "This means toddlers are beginning to learn that they have some power and control over what happens around them, which builds confidence," Loewen continues. In other words, when parents infringe on those boundaries and force kids to share everything all the time, they could be doing more harm than good.

Another issue from the experts? Forcing a child to share can be traumatizing, especially when parents use threats or intimidation to get children to hand over a toy.

"You teach the child that his opinions and desires don’t matter," explains child psychiatrist Scott Carroll. This can also have adverse consequences.

"People who feel powerless and pushed around by the world rebel," explains Laura Markham, Ph.D., author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings. "Toddlers are famous for that, but it is partly an effect that we as parents create."

What's more, these kids develop a negative association with sharing ... which makes them even less willing to share in the future. In short, by forcing kids to share 24/7, you're cultivating selfish, unkind kids -- the exact opposite of what you want!

"When we force kids to give up something they want to someone else, we deprive them of the experience of choosing to give it when they're ready and want to do so," says Markham. "When they have that experience, it triggers a release of feel-good hormones and they want to repeat it. They develop generosity."

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But this doesn't mean parents should throw up their hands and just let their kids cling to their toys non-stop. The key is to pick appropriate times to teach your kid to be generous and learn to "share" on their own, rather than being forced. Here's some advice to make that happen:

1. Allow you kids to stake a claim. If your child adores certain toys, don't force him to share those. "'Sacred toys' such as a brand new birthday gift or beloved bear should not need to be shared," says Monique Prince, a clinical social worker and parenting coach. To guarantee these items won't cause trouble on a playdates, allow your child to share items he's less attached to; that'll help get sharing rolling in a way he'll be comfortable with. If your child is playing with his toy in a public place like a park where someone else wants to horn in, don't make your kid give in just to keep the peace with other parents. "If my child is playing with his own shovel, and another child wants to use it, I would leave that decision up to my child and would not force him," says Markham. After all, in this scenario, "there's no agreement between the kids to play together, so why would he be required to share his toy? I may want to drive your car, but I don't expect you to just hand me the keys."

2. Introduce sharing at the right time. "The issue of whether you would insist that a child would share or not has a lot to do with where it takes place," says Leana Greene, a parenting expert at Kids In The House. "If your kids are at a playgroup or preschool or at a friend’s house and they are playing with toys that aren’t theirs, then those are good times to try to teach them to share." Outside the home, for instance at the playground, kids will of course not be able to monopolize the slide or the public toys in the sandbox -- nor should they.

Age is another consideration. The average child should be ready to start sharing sometime between 18 and 24 months -- around the time they start socializing (and butting heads!) with their peers. "I think as soon as you take your kid to a play group, they are going to have to start learning about sharing no matter what," says Greene. "You have to introduce your kid to sharing the same way you can’t allow your child to hit another kid on the head with a toy."

3. Prepare your child for sharing. "When parents anticipate a sharing situation coming on like a play date, they can prepare their child by telling them that sharing will be expected," says Loewen. That way, a child can prep themselves mentally. 

4. Empathize rather than order. Take a step back from teaching kids to be "polite," and you can teach actual empathy. "After all, we don't want to raise a rule followers; we want to raise kind kids," Loewen says. So if the situation calls for sharing but your child doesn't want to, allow him to express his frustration by saying "I know, sharing is hard." Then, once he's calm, explain that the other child is sad because she wanted to play with the same item. "Often children come up with solutions that parents hadn't thought about, like giving the child a similar toy to play with," says Loewen. "Parents who are able to engage their child in problem solving will teach their child to go beyond rule compliance."

5. Teach taking turns. One concept even toddlers can accept is to take turn with a toy. The skill doesn't come naturally, so you'll have to coach them how to do it. Prince says that starts with giving kids the actual words of communication for turn-taking.

So for example, if Billy is playing with a ball and Sally wants it, you'd say, "Sally, please say to Billy, 'May I have a turn please?'" Then give Billy the words, "yes, you can take a turn in five minutes." Then have Sally say, "thank you" and wait until it's her turn.

If Billy does share, even reluctantly, be sure to praise his generosity liberally. If he gets upset, parental empathy will work far better than admonitions or threats. Say something like, "Oh dear, you are so upset because you really don't want to share. I'm so sorry. Sharing is really hard." From there, encourage Billy to practice the opposite role and ask for a turn with the ball. Using a timer can also help stave off impatience.

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"This is very time consuming," Prince admits. "But, if you invest in this time, they will now have a new skill, which they will apply to numerous other situations too. It works. It also keeps the adult from modeling power and control, which would happen if you punish a child or just take the toy away."

6. Stand up for your child. If another mom tries to get your child to share in a situation where you feel it's not merited -- say, a strange child at the playground tries to swipe a toy your child loves -- do not force your child to share. Turn to the mother and say "I guess today Devon has his heart set on using that shovel the whole time. I'm sorry. I know your boy would like a turn." Then turn back to your child and say, "Once you're done, can you give this boy a turn?"

"Kids will nearly always agree to this," says Markham. "I have seen it happen repeatedly that at this point, when a child sees he will not be forced, he hands the other kid the shovel with a smile."

How do you handle things when kids don't want to share?


Image via Cheryl Casey/shutterstock

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