“Share” is a dirty word.

The door bell rang five times in rapid succession. Emma. She’s one of four kids that just moved in down the street. They replaced a family of four who moved out a couple months ago. The previous family was an unmitigated disaster of humanity, so Emma and her family are a welcome replacement.

Since her first visit, Emma has come down to play daily. Usually, my wife is here and participating in the fun, but yesterday I was by myself. This would be the first time I’ve watched Emma and Noelle (my daughter) interact.

They managed — of course — to simultaneously find a pink pony on the bookshelf in a room full of a thousand toys. Apparently it’s a prized possession. Their hands both hit the pony and the struggle was on. They were about 12 inches from me — well within striking distance if I had cared to step in as the authoritarian.

Instead, I started talking about the situation as they worked to pry the toy out of the other’s hands.

“You both want the pink pony, but there’s only one pink pony.”

The tussle didn’t last long. My daughter is big for her age and managed to overpower Emma, ending up with the pink pony. Emma left the room, not crying, but feeling sad.

“Noelle, you and Emma both wanted the pink pony. Were you afraid that she was going to take the pink pony home with her?”

She nodded.

“I won’t let her take the pink pony home. If she plays with it, I’ll make sure she leaves it here. I’ll keep it safe.”

Then I added, “If the pink pony is a special toy that you don’t want anyone to play with, we can put it in a safe spot. Do you want to put it away somewhere safe?”

She said yes, so we put the pink pony in a drawer. Not long after, Emma was rounding the corner back into the room. Noelle had grabbed a book she wanted me to read with her, so we were sitting in the chair preparing to get started on it.

Emma came over, threw her hands up, and said, “where’s the pink pony?” She expected to come back and have her turn. That’s how this sharing thing works.

I explained to Emma that we put the pink pony away because it was a special toy that Noelle didn’t want anyone to play with. Then I made sure Emma knew that she could play with all of the other toys Noelle had.

Emma was visibly upset. I said, “You’re feeling sad that you didn’t get a turn playing with the pink pony. That must be very frustrating.”

What happened next was interesting. Noelle hopped down off my lap and went to the drawer where the pink pony was hiding. She opened the drawer, grabbed the pink pony, and took it straight to Emma. She outstretched her arm and put it right in Emma’s hand.

Emma smiled big and ran off to the other room to play with it. I turned to Noelle and said, “Noelle, Emma looked very happy when you shared the pink pony with her. She had a big smile, her eyes lit up, and now she’s having fun with it.” Noelle smiled, too.

Here’s some random thoughts I have about this interaction — and sharing in general — that I’d like to pass along:

When young children tussle over toys, they’re not being mean, they’re learning how to interact. Mean is a label that adults apply to children in these situations. Nothing more, nothing less.

Parents often label behaviors in sharing situations as “nice,” “not nice,” “mean,” “selfish,” and “good.” This is completely disconnected from reality. I can be a nice person and a good person and not share something. I can be a mean person or a bad person and still share something. Deciding not to share doesn’t make me selfish (though that’s what the shame will probably drive me to become). Labeling behavior is a form of emotional manipulation and the label is almost always wrong. It’s a destructive strategy from start to finish. Even after Noelle shared authentically, I didn’t label the behavior.

If I had stepped in and shut down the tussle over the pink pony when it started, the lessons in identifying emotions and the voluntary, non-directed act of sharing would never have happened.

When children are forced to share (which is an oxymoron), they do so with an underlying tone of animosity. There’s no kindness involved whatsoever. What they DO learn is to despise their playmates and the act of sharing.

I don’t think sharing means what some people think it means. Forced sharing is not sharing, it’s theft and redistribution of property. This is not lost on children and it becomes a tactic that they use to great effect as they get older.

Feeling sad because you didn’t get to play with a toy that someone else has is a legitimate emotion AND a legitimate outcome. There is no universal rule that says two humans must always be able to use the same item. If my friend buys a Tessla, I’d assume he’d let me drive it because we’re friends. If he doesn’t, I understand. It’s an expensive car. I can’t demand that he let me drive it. I’ll have to feel sad, cope, and move on instead.

When you force sharing, children don’t learn to solve problems on their own. Instead, they look to an authority figure to step in and settle things. If the authority figure uses force, this only teaches children to use force when the authority figure is not around.

Rather than encouraging an outcome, authentic leadership is about stating the facts of the situation and helping kids make sense of what people are feeling and needing. This focus on empathy and understanding is far more productive than any direction. The ability to identify emotions and empathize with needs will make your child a social superhero. Coercing their behavior will make them emotionally deaf.

“Noelle, you and Emma both wanted the pink pony. Were you afraid that she was going to take the pink pony home with her?” — Rather than assuming kids are mean, parents should look to uncover the underlying fears and needs. If I’m unsure about the end outcome of my possession, it’s extremely logical that I’d protect it, right? I don’t lend stuff to people I don’t know for this very reason. Why are we punishing kids for behaving the same way we do?

“I won’t let her take the pink pony home. If she plays with it, I’ll make sure she leaves it here. I’ll keep it safe.” — I’m showing Noelle that her fear is legitimate and that I’m on her side.  I believe this is why she ultimately made the decision to share the pink pony willingly and without direction, even after it was away and safe. Taking the pink pony and giving it to Emma or forcing Noelle to give it to Emma would only erode Noelle’s trust in me. Exchanging my daughter’s trust for the five minutes of joy Emma had with the pony before she moved on to something else would be nothing short of a tragedy.

“You’re feeling sad that you didn’t get a turn playing with the pink pony. That must be very frustrating.” — It’s important to not make kids into victims. Validating feelings is important. If there’s no moral judgements and the situation just “is,” then it’s easier to make sure everyone gets their needs met. When parents judge behaviors, they favor one child’s needs over the other’s.

Forced sharing teaches that you’re entitled to other people’s property and vice versa. If you universalize this, there’s no such thing as property. It’s also an extremely narcissistic view of the world. If we want kids to be empathetical, why are we training them to be narcissistic?

How Noelle felt after legitimately sharing with Emma was a feeling and a lesson that I could never TEACH. Often, our job isn’t to teach or even to lead, it’s to allow a situation to retain the possibility of an authentic outcome. It was quite possible that the pony wouldn’t have been shared authentically. The only reason it was is because I refrained from manipulating the interaction.

Do you have any “but, what if?” scenarios? I understand that this is just one example and the kids are within a certain age bracket (two to three). If you have questions or “what ifs,” please use the comment section below.

  • Kelly

    Hi, I have a unique situation. We had our son come live with us at the age of 4. He was not raised in the environment you recommend and we are trying to the best with where he is now. He was having a play date and I tried not to force sharing but he ended up not wanting his “friends” to play with any of his toys.

    I am curious how you would recommend starting this process with a child that grew up in a difficult situation.


    • Kevin Geary

      Hi Kelly,

      Great question. My daughter actually struggled with this early on. I think it’s important to understand that sometimes there are reasons that we don’t quite perceive behind the behavior.

      I asked my daughter (before the next play date), “are you afraid they’re going to take the toys home and you won’t get them back?” She did.

      So, I explained that they won’t take the toys, they just want to play with them, and I will make sure they don’t take them. So, I addressed her underlying fear.

      Then we went a step further. We said, “if there are a few toys that you don’t want anyone to play with, we can put them away to keep them safe. Which toys do you want to put away?” She selected three or four and we put them away. And then I said, “Okay, your really special toys are safe. The kids are going to play with the other toys when they come, but they won’t take them.”

      Expect for there to still be some anxiety on the next play date, but it should go much more smoothly beyond that point and get better and better with each visit. Hope that helps.

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“Share” is a dirty word.

by Kevin Geary time to read: 6 min