Should Children be forced to Share? Must Generosity be cultivated?

When young children come together to play we parents often think, “Can’t you just get along and share?!” It seems so simple, but the reality is another – there is nothing simple about the subject. Sharing requires trust, a certain extent of sequential thinking and inner stability. A child, insecure in the surroundings or tired and crabby will not be willing to share a toy. It is easy to fall into the commanding role and order children to do as they are told, however negating their emotions and their will does more harm than good.

Many parents ask how will my child learn how to share, if I do not show her how? How will my child develop social abilities, if I do not steer her in the right direction? How will she find friends? I must cultivate generosity! I must deepen his awareness and care for others!

Thinking we as adults must do something to promote generosity, empathy and goodwill is flawed in itself and the strategy of forcing children to give up their toy as soon as another child wants it, in order to promote these qualities, grossly fails to meet its aim. Empathy for others cannot develop when the individual isn’t shown empathy. Furthermore, why should a child be encouraged to give something up, abiding the principle that it is good and right to share your possessions but wrong, rude or even unfair to stick by your own boundaries and say “no, I do not wish to share this.” The basic respect that is observed between adults, concerning possessions, seems to be forgotten when it comes to our children. Parents overrule them and promote a disregard for personal boundaries.

Forcing children to give up their toys does not instill healthy connotations with the act of sharing. It promotes a fear of having their things taken away and makes them want to hold on to them tighter. If sharing is forced, the experience is not driven by generosity, empathy and good- or even freewill. It feels negative; the child feels wronged and alienated.


While children are deciphering and getting to know their role and place in the world, their abilities and how to use their strength and power, they also recognize they have possessions. They begin to understand when a belonging is being taken away from them and with the development of their will in the Autonomy Phase comes the wish for their possessions to be under their government.


When it comes to personal objects, a “NO!” is not open for interpretation and must be respected. If we ask “may M. borrow your car?” there must be a choice of answer, otherwise it would be a command and not a question. Some children will cling to their possessions more than others, neither is wrong or in need of correction.


While being so driven by their will for autonomy, young children do not always have the capability to defend it, especially when adults become their opponents and seek to take something from them to teach them to share. We must uphold our children’s personal boundaries, when they cannot. For some their urgency may seem overdramatic, antisocial, psychotic or fake, but I truly believe the emotions are as sincere as they come. Their instincts tell them to defend what is theirs and their will motivates them to be autonomous in their choices. When we ignore these drives our children are left in true distress.


Telling children to share their toys, to not make a big deal about it and to just get along leaves their emotions unaddressed, invalidated and unsupported. This leaves them in a state of detachment instead of connection.


Rather than setting a timer and taking things into our own hands, governing over them and assigning our own ideas of sharing to situations, giving children the opportunity to finish their game or their turn (however long it may take!) allows them to develop the qualities many parents seek to teach. Children can empathize with another child finishing their turn; they are more willing to join in the game and support the other child’s play by for instance pushing the toy car they are sitting in, because they aren’t holding onto strict and rigid rules or false boundaries such as a time limit – they are engaged in a real and authentic situation with real people with real needs! Time isn’t the issue; children care about fairness.


When children have the opportunity to decide to share and when they trust that we will do our utmost to protect their will to self-govern, then they can develop the social abilities they need in order to play in a group of peers instead of stagnating on clutching all their earthly possessions and keeping them safe. Children new to the idea of having the autonomy to end their turn when they are truly ready may take a while to trust that they are allowed to, and prolong their turn. It is crucial that we allow them to finish without forcing or threatening them in order for this trust to flourish.


While children are waiting for another child to finish their turn, we can support their developing impulse control by validating their emotions and helping them join in in the game until it is time to switch or by engaging them in another way, such as racing around or a physical game that deems as an outlet for frustration during the waiting period.


Young children require our support and ideas for conflict resolution; they make use of certain strategies we show them when they realize they serve their purpose:



*An outstretched arm with a flat hand is a signal for “Stop!” which replaces a shove, hit or kick.


*A reminder we are here to help and mediate.


*A reminder to use words instead of for instance pulling on clothes or pushing.


*Offering trades.


*Offering alternative toys.


*Having a box of communal toys at your home.


*If one child is on a swing, the other can push them; if one is on a toy car the other can push or pretend to be a traffic policeman or build a road until they park.


*We must validate feelings and take them seriously but also be mindful of adding to the drama. Sometimes vibrancy and re-diverting attention to positive ways of involving our children in the situation are just what they need from us. For example: one child knocks the other child’s sandcastle over “He’s helping!” Our fantasy can guide play and bring children to new ideas – perhaps a dragon or a storm attacked the castle.


* Asking which toys children would prefer to put away when they have visitors. We must remember we wouldn’t enjoy our friends coming to our homes and going through all our things. It is only human to give children the choice of what they wish to share and what they do not.



Once children are in the habit of using certain strategies and used to playing in groups of same-aged children they will require less guidance and be confident in solving conflicts by themselves. When they trust they have the choice to share, they do so (in my experience) freely and joyfully.


Someone gave my son Marley a banana when he had just turned two years old, told him it was his and then asked for a bite. Marley said “no!” This person then proceeded to tell him he had to share, that the banana was for everyone, seeing a problem in Marley’s claiming possession of the banana. When the situation got heated, I intervened and explained the banana was given to him and his answer to the question of whether or not he wanted to share was to be respected. After a few bites Marley happily (and autonomously) reached over and offered everyone a piece of his banana.


Marley had a favorite toy car that he did not like to share and when he parked it he didn’t want it to be moved at all. My best friend and I soon grew used to the potential for conflict when she came to our home with her daughter, who is two years younger than Marley. We protected his personal boundaries and explained as many times as we had to that this was Marley’s special car and nobody else could play on it. We were constantly present while our young children were playing; ready to help them navigate, communicate and assist in solving conflicts. To our surprise, Marley insisted on buying his friend her own car for when she came to play.


When personal boundaries are established, children accept them readily. Personal boundaries, respect for other people and self-respect flow through every situation and once they are acknowledged, taken seriously and valued at a young age, they are a given in later life.



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