Teaching children abstract concepts like gratitude, compassion and empathy can be tricky. When a younger sibling is screaming to play with a toy that's currently being played with by another child, it's tempting to guilt the older child into sharing — just to get the screaming to stop.
But is forcing your child to share really the best move? Experts say making a kid share their toys may not be the way to teach kids graciousness and generosity.
A recent Instagram post from the parenting mentors at Curious Parenting read, "Gratitude, generosity and empathy only really count when given freely. When they're forced, they just don't have the same ring to them ... and kids can tell."
Instead, the post encourages adults to model the behaviors they want their children to emulate, rather than forcing them to apologize, say "thank you" or share their belongings. As the author and playwright James Baldwin said, "Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them."
Just ask any parent who's had a swear word inadvertently come out of their toddler's mouths and they'll tell you it's true.
Parenting expert Susan Gold Groner, author of Parenting with Sanity and Joy: 101 Simple Strategies and host of The Parenting Mentor podcast, agrees that modeling is a much more effective method of teaching generosity than force.
"It starts early," Groner tells Yahoo Life. "You can't reason with a baby or a very young child — they're just not there yet — so when you start playing with your baby or toddler, even in parallel play, you share the toy with them. When they start solids, you share your food with them. You can even narrate and say, 'I want to share this with you.' By doing it and showing them the conversation around sharing, you're effectively modeling the behavior you want them to imitate."
Learn your child's sharing boundaries
Groner says some children are fine with sharing certain toys or foods, while other toys and foods might be off-limits. It's OK feel very possessive about certain things.
"It takes a while to understand where your child's boundaries are, but once you find them, it's important to respect them," she says. "Some children may be happy to share a toy, but not their ice cream."
Shelly Triolo, mother to two now-teenage children, says when her kids were school-aged, she told them not to bring anything to school or to the park that they wouldn't be comfortable with other children touching. "I set expectations and let them choose within the boundaries of my expectations," she says. "Both of them still operate this way."
As children get older, they'll decide where their boundaries lie: You'll notice the mimicking behavior when your toddler tries to feed you from their high chair or shoves a spoonful of their yogurt toward your face. When you accept your toddler's offer to share and you make happy faces and sounds, they see that sharing elicits a positive response, and are more likely to continue the behavior.
Sharing with peers takes time, and practice
Around third or fourth grade, children start sharing freely with their peers, without encouragement or simply doing it out of modeling behavior. They start to understand why we share and are more open to reason, says Groner.
"It's normal for very little children to think the world revolves around them," she says. "But around the middle of elementary school, they start to notice how their own behavior affects others."
Groner saw this behavior with her own daughter, who had a hard time learning to share with her classmates or understanding that since she was no longer interested in a toy, others could now play with it or the family could donate it to another family with children who would enjoy it. Eventually, she got it, but it took some time and continued modeling from Groner and her husband.
Groner's daughter is 20 now, and they still share clothes and shoes occasionally — within boundaries. "Are there certain things I don't want to share with her? Of course," she says. "Are there things she doesn't want to share with me? Absolutely. It's finding those boundaries and respecting them that builds trust between parent and child."
Simon Blake, a father of two children who lives in Orem, Utah, is currently in the process of blending two families with a total of four kids. "Since different families have different expectations of sharing, we've been trying to involve the kids in what the sharing rules will be," he explains. "They're older, so they're learning to communicate their own needs and views as they share scarce resources with new people living under the same roof."
Empower kids to decide what they want to share, and what they don't
"I don't like forcing kids to do anything," says Groner. "And forcing them to share just builds resentment and anger. Sharing becomes a negative thing associated with negative emotions instead of positive ones."
One tip Groner offers is to have your child decide if there are certain things they don't want to share before a friend comes over for a playdate. Have your child place those items in a box and then place the box on a shelf in their closet.
"You tell them that this is their special box and they don't have to share anything in the box, but the rest of their toys are fair game for playing together," she says. "By giving your child that autonomy and decision-making, you're empowering them and they're more likely to be more open to sharing other things."
Rona Gindin, a mother to grown children, and Katie Farmand, a mother to young children, both live in Orlando, Fla. and have used this tactic with great success. "When my kids were little and had friends visiting, I'd let them choose one or two toys they didn't have to share," says Gindin. "The rest were free game. It worked well."
Farmand agrees, having used this strategy with her daughter Hazel and son Nico. "We tell them to put away whatever you feel would be hard to see another child play with," she says."Usually it's their special dolls or stuffed animals."
If your child is having a hard time, don't give up. "Keep modeling the behavior," says Groner. "The more your children see it, and see the positive responses and emotions associated with sharing, the more likely they are to incorporate generosity and other concepts into their emotional vocabulary."
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