Stop Telling Your Kids To "Share"

06/13/2008 01:10 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

I had just started pushing Jules in a swing at the park when up to the sandbox strolled Theo, a petite two-year-old, proudly carrying a big orange drum and a single drumstick.
He put his drum down and was about to bang away, when a much taller three-year-old named Sam came over and wrangled the stick out of his hand and started playingLittle Theo wanted his stick back! But Sam wasn't about to give it to him. Banging the drum was fun and Theo was certainly no match.

On cue, the parent coaching began.

Sam's Mom put her cell down and told Sam that he had to give the drumstick back to the little boy because it was his drum. At the same time, Theo's Dad told Theo that he needed to share with Sam and let him play the drum for a while.

When not-surprisingly Sam didn't just give Theo the stick back and Theo didn't just say "Okay, cool, sure you can play my drum you tall, bullying stranger," the parents continued to demand compliance.

"Sam, let Theo have his drumstick back."

"Theo, you need to share with Sam."

Ignoring his mom, Sam wouldn't stop hitting the drum and Theo, who couldn't believe what was happening, became absolutely unglued. His father took to physically restraining him as he cried hysterically and thrashed about: I want my drum back. It's mine. I just got here. I only got to play it for two seconds. Stop telling me I have to give it to him! Or "share" it with him--whatever bullshit word you want to use that means I have to hand over my favorite toy over to someone I've never seen before. Let me go. Let me fend for myself.

Just as Sam's Mom started to once again tell Sam to return the drumstick--probably eager to both put an end to Theo's suffering and to get back to her phone call--Theo's Dad interrupted, "Thanks, but actually Theo needs to learn how to share."

Really? I thought. Right now?

Relieved to be let off the hook, Sam's Mom returned to her call even though the background was filled with a banging drum and a shrieking kid. (I would've hung up on her.) Sam must have triumphantly thought, Gosh, if I just hold out long enough, my Mom will back down and I'll get my way. How great! Duly noted.

As Theo raged on his Dad calmly continued his "share" lecture as if his son was remotely in a condition to hear a thing he had to say. Then, finally realizing that his approach wasn't working, Theo's Dad picked up a still-writhing and out-of-his-mind Theo and left the sandbox. He was taking him on a cool-down walk. Or a distract-him walk. While a peacefulness returned to the playground, as it turned out, the fun had only just begun.

About ten minutes later, a now calm and seemingly content Theo and Dad returned to the playground to find Sam still banging away. While the walk may have successfully turned Theo's thoughts to other things like falling leaves for a while, it's not like he was eight months old anymore. He didn't forget about his drum. Sam's mom, wanting to stave off another hurricane of upset, put her phone down again, and this time made sure Sam gave the drumstick to a salivating Theo--which he reluctantly did.

Not seconds into Theo's gleeful banging, however, did fellow two-year-old Owen show up with his parents. Owen and Theo's parents had just started their How-are-you's? when Owen started to grab the drumstick from Theo. And how do you think Theo's Dad responded to this? That's right. Theo had to learn to share.

"Don't you like Owen, Theo? Isn't he your friend? Don't you want your friend to enjoy your drum?" Theo's Dad said, waxing on and on to someone alive in the world for only 25 months.

And that's when Theo really lost it. FUCK YOU DAD! Fuuuuuck Youuuu you mother fucking asshole! wailed a wailing Theo.

It was unmistakable.

Fuck you, you mother fucking asshole that cares about other kids happiness more than mine! I'm your own flesh and blood for god's sake. You don't even know that Sam! You barely know Owen! Why can't I play with my god damned drum that you, yourself, said I could bring to the park? Or at the very least have the chance to fend for my self you controlling motherfucker. Let the go of me! I want to play my drum."

And off Theo was whisked for another walk.

All of this drama in the name of teaching the concept of sharing to a toddler.

Share! You hear parents say it ad nauseum on the playground. And it never seemed to help. Why, I began to wonder, why is it so hard for these little kids to do. Which made me wonder what it really meant.

Okay, so if I'm sitting in the only chair in the room and you want to sit down too, and I offer you PART of my seat, then we are indeed SHARING the chair. However, if I stand up and let you sit down, then I am GIVING you my seat. But if you later GIVE it back to me and I accept, then I have LOANED it to you, or indeed I have SHARED it with you over A PERIOD OF TIME. But before sharing can happen, giving away has to happen first. The giving away may later be relabeled as SHARING depending on what happens. But it may not. It's hard to know what will happen in the future.

However, I thought:

If I am eating a bagel and you want some and I GIVE you part of what I'm eating, then I have SHARED it with you because we are both getting part of the same whole but I have definitely not LOANED it to you because I can't get it back after you've eaten it.


If I GIVE you part of my bagel even though I'm really hungry (or let you sit in my chair even though my legs are tired) then I am sublimating my desire (to eat or sit) in order to satisfy yours. Perhaps because I'm nice. Perhaps because it's civil. Perhaps because I'm a people-pleasing martyr who wants to be loved. Or perhaps because I have money and enough control over my life that I can go buy another (bagel or go find another chair right away. Or perhaps because my parents told me I had to and was afraid of how they'd respond if I didn't.

Therefore, facetiously I ask myself:

Do toddlers understand that when they are being asked to SHARE a toy that only one person can play with at a time, that they are in fact being asked to LOAN it to someone even though no time frame is being specified and even if it was, time is a difficult and abstract concept for people who live entirely in the present to understand therefore making it feel like they are being asked to GIVE it away?

And even if they do understand that they will get their loaned toy back in a short period of time, how equipped are toddlers to understand that they need to or should delay their own gratification for the gratification of others in the name of being "polite" or "sociable"? I mean, it's certainly hard for me to delay gratification for the good of my life. I credit card the jeans that make me look thinner even though my bank account is empty. And more often than not, I eat that cookie even though the scale doesn't show me the numbers I long for (therefore leading me to buy the jeans I can't afford). Sublimating desire in order to do the right thing is difficult--at best. I mean we wouldn't be at war spending 12 billion dollars a month for seven years if Bill Clinton had been able to sublimate his desire to stick a cigar up his intern's vagina. For a two year old to do it? Totally absurd.

Then I began to wonder how many times, a similar scenario was going to play out in Theo's childhood. I could just see Theo as a rage-filled teenager, locking himself in his room telling his parents how much he hates them at every turn. His parents misguidedly thinking it was just part of adolescence, not realizing there's a difference between kids hating their parents who don't understand them and kids HATING their parents who don't understand them because they never ever for one second really listened to them, never empathized with them never made them or made feel heard and understood. I could see the drug use. And the trips to therapy. Maybe Theo would grow up to use his anger "constructively" and become super successful and then his dad would see....even though he was no longer talking to him until recently when he heard he got cancer and figured it was time to reconcile.