We Don’t Really Want to Force Our Kids to Share

Do we? As upstanding citizens and caring humans, most of us feel compelled by empathy to help others who don’t have what they need. We offer our money to organizations that provide supplies and services. We offer our time volunteering to feed people. We value the act of giving freely of ourselves, so… we turn around and teach our kids to share through force? Wait a minute. What is the message we’re sending versus the message we’re intending to send?

If you look up the word “sharing,” you’ll see definitions that involve portioning and joint use of an item. When we tell our children to share a toy, unless both children are playing with a toy at the same time, they are cannot share the toy. We share food when we split it among our family members. We share a couch when we sit together to watch a movie. Sharing is an essential exercise we all must do to survive. We teach our children to share of themselves when we model intentional generosity. It takes very little effort to teach children how to share if we are willing to orient ourselves toward inclusion and restoration. They witness sharing when we leave tips for people who provide us a service. They see it when we move to make room for someone on a bus. They recognize it when a community comes together to set aside land to build homes for people who have none. Sharing is an invitation and a kindness. And, for many of us, sharing is a fundamental component of social justice. When we don’t share, people suffer. In some cases, we have to enact laws to mitigate the harm caused by people who refuse to share, particularly when that refusal is based on unjust discrimination.

Many of us say we want our children to learn to share when what we really mean is that we want them to learn to take turns with other children. Turn-taking is tough! It’s not something that comes naturally to a small child. Yet, we can find ourselves pushing a child too hard to do something that they are not developmentally able to accomplish within the strict confines of our directives. And, there is a significant cost to coercing a child into an action. In 2014, the multidisciplinary journal of Development and Psychopathology published an article that looked at the links between early coercion and later behavioral problems. The researchers followed an ethnically diverse sample of 731 children from ages 2-5 to discover the effect of their parents’ methods in enforcing discipline. What they found was that coercive interactions between caregivers and children amplified the children’s noncompliance and escalated both oppositional and aggressive behavior even into later childhood. Meaning, when we coerce our children, we effectively encourage them to resist rather than to cooperate. So, what do we do instead?

In my house, one of our cherished guidelines is receiving consent. My children (currently 4 and 2) understand, through modeling, that we don’t snatch items away from each other. Adults and children alike enjoy the security of knowing that their claim to an item will be honored to the extent possible. Here’s how Peaceful Dad and I make it happen.

Ownership

When one child receives a gift, we encourage that child to store the gift away from main areas if they don’t want their sibling or other children playing with it. When they’re ready to enter it into circulation, since new toys do lose their luster over time, turn-taking guidelines will apply.

Turns

Whomever has possession of a toy retains possession of it for as long as they wish, with one major caveat. Turns do not last overnight. So, the next day, the other sibling will have “first dibs” on that toy should they want to play with it. A “turn” lasts as long as the child is actively playing with a toy. We don’t do toy hoarding here. One toy at a time. Once the child moves onto another toy, the toy left behind is up for grabs.

Waiting

When one sibling takes an interest in a toy that the other sibling is playing with, we sportscast. “Brother, looks like Sister wants a turn when you’ve finished playing.” We also engage with the child who is waiting by empathizing, “You really want to play with that toy! After Brother’s turn, it will be your turn” and encourage the child to choose another activity. And, then we move on. The goal is to empower the children to establish boundaries and use words to indicate their intention.

Intervention

There are rare times in our house that fights break out over toys. It’s always unrelated to the toy though. Our children generally choose to play together and cooperate unless something is wrong, so when we intervene, we follow our trusty Three Rs. Once the household is calm again, we sportscast, “It was Brother’s turn before. Brother, would you still like to play with the toy?” And, then everything starts again.

Sharing

We’ve had a lot of wonderful experiences with turn-taking. Sharing is a little more difficult here. There’s a particular riding toy that my children try to ride together. At first, it’s adorable, but after a while, they often start pushing and shoving. When that happens, we intervene with the Three Rs and do our best to let them work it out.

Fighting

Every now and then, a fight will break out that gets reactivated even after we’ve worked through the Three Rs. When this happens, we do intervene, usually by leading both children to another activity. I’ve noticed with my young kids that the cure for fights is playtime outside. I can understand how frustrating it is to be on top of each other in a small space for too long. They need a chance to stretch their legs and fill their lungs with air. We go outside at least once a day anyway, but on the more difficult days, we’ll spend extra time in nature. I admit that my patience grows short on those days and my own attitude exacerbates an already volatile situation. So, fair warning, if your kids are fighting, check yourself too.

Outside the Home

When we’re away from home, playing with other children, we respect the rules of the space. I let my kids know that we are not at home and these toys do not belong to us. I employ more redirection in these instances. For example, I might say, “Brother, looks like your friend would like a turn.” I might escalate to something like “five more minutes and let’s go find something else to play with” if my son isn’t showing signs of readiness. The younger the child, the harder this is, I’ve found. But, talking your child through the hardship helps, no matter how old they are.

I can understand that all of this may seem preposterous given what you may have witnessed in your own home, but hear me out. Encouraging consent and self-advocacy gives children tools that will last a lifetime. Helping them wait lets them know they aren’t alone and that you understand them. Giving children authority to take temporary ownership of a toy empowers the child in a world that is incredibly disempowering to children. And, you might discover what I have. When I take a step back, my kids work a lot of things out on their own. For instance, my son will negotiate for a toy! He’ll bring my daughter a toy he knows she loves in exchange for a turn with the toy she’s playing with. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. But, by and large, my kids tend toward willingly giving up their toys to their sibling, because they know the choice is completely theirs. Have faith in your kids. They may surprise you!

The Brutality of the “I Turned Out Fine” Argument

A couple years back, The New York Times published an article called “The Fallacy of the ‘I Turned Out Fine’ Argument.” In the interest of specificity, I will simply quote the key logical problems with this argument, as explicated in that piece:

It’s what’s known as an anecdotal fallacy. This fallacy, in simple terms, states that “I’m not negatively affected (as far as I can tell), so it must be O.K. for everyone.” As an example: “I wasn’t vaccinated, and I turned out fine. Therefore, vaccination is unnecessary.” We are relying on a sample size of one. Ourselves, or someone we know. And we are applying that result to everyone.

It relies on a decision-making shortcut known as the availability heuristic. Related to the anecdotal fallacy, it’s where we draw on information that is immediately available to us when we make a judgment call. In this case, autobiographical information is easily accessible — it’s already in your head. We were smacked as kids and turned out fine, so smacking doesn’t hurt anyone. But studies show that the availability heuristic is a cognitive bias that can cloud us from making accurate decisions utilizing all the information available. It blinds us to our own prejudices.

It dismisses well-substantiated, scientific evidence. To say “I turned out fine” is an arrogant dismissal of an alternative evidence-based view. It requires no perspective and no engagement with an alternative perspective. The statement closes off discourse and promotes a single perspective that is oblivious to alternatives that may be more enlightened. Anecdotal evidence often undermines scientific results, to our detriment.

It leads to entrenched attitudes. When views inconsistent with our own are shared we make an assumption that whoever holds those views is not fine, refusing to engage, explore or grow. Perhaps an inability to engage with views that run counter to our own suggests that we did not turn out quite so “fine.”

Where is the threshold for what constitutes having turned out fine? If it means we avoided prison, we may be setting the bar too low. Gainfully employed and have a family of our own? Still a pretty basic standard. It is as reasonable to say “I turned out fine because of this” as it is to say “I turned out fine in spite of this.”

Recently, I participated in a large 1,000+ comment discussion about spanking. Nearly every commenter supported spanking and many made the “I turned out fine” claim. Anywhere you see adults treating children in a violent manner, you are bound to also find people making complimentary comments to the effect that they received the same treatment themselves as children and it taught them to respect their elders. Respect? I’d be curious to know what that means to them, since so many people cannot believe that giving respect to children engenders respectfulness from children.

I was discussing that heartbreaking thread with a friend who remarked:

I was ruminating on statements of erasure like that. And I wondered if it exists because it’s too painful to consider that they themselves were also mistreated.

Because to acknowledge someone’s pain means realizing you were maimed too.

Statements of erasure. She took my breath away. That’s exactly what people do when they suggest that the often unbearable pain one person experiences can’t be that bad if others survive it without obvious scars. What about the deep scars? The ones they deny. The ones they can’t accept. The ones that offer points of empathy and connection to others who shared the same experience?

Adults who defend spanking, and were spanked as children, openly admit that they tried to avoid being spanked. They know it hurt. Yet, they inflict the same uncomfortable experience on their kids. Not only that, they also vehemently defend their parents’ decision to spank them. Consider the following description:

[Children who will become adults who condone spanking] are placed in a situation where they feel intense fear of physical harm and believe all control is in the hands of their tormentor. The psychological response follows after a period of time and is a survival strategy for the victims. It includes sympathy and support for their [parents’] plight and may even manifest in negative feelings toward [advocates] who are trying to help [spanked children].

I admit I tweaked the wording with my own edits. This is actually a description of Stockholm Syndrome, a survival mechanism that manifests when people cannot escape their tormentors and find themselves becoming psychologically attached as a means of protection from harm. It is a form of trauma bonding and it is frighteningly similar to what happens to spanked children who become spankers as adults. These adults demand their “right” to hit their children in order to make them behave despite the fact that spanking not only doesn’t make children behave, it also increases the risk of negative behavioral, cognitive, psychosocial, and emotional outcomes for children. Spankers will say that can’t be true, because their children are wonderfully behaved. If spanking works, though, why do you have to spank a child more than once? Moreover, is the child really well behaved, or are they experiencing an instinctive survival response that makes them passive?

The evidence is clear that harsh treatment does maim kids. For instance, a 2009 study found reduced prefrontal cortical gray matter volume in young adults who had been exposed, as children, to occasional spanking with a paddle on the buttocks that neither resulted in injury nor was conducted in anger. To be clear, the area of their brains that was affected manages the abilities to 1) distinguish oneself from others, 2) see oneself in others, 3) empathize with others, 4) predict behavior in others, and 5) use logical judgment in interpreting behavior in others. You can imagine how incredibly detrimental such brain changes would be. And, there are millions upon millions of people who have been affected and may not even realize it. And, the scariest part for me is that there is no way to predict the effects spanking will have on a child. Why take the risk?

When a commenter in that spanking discussion I mentioned earlier was asked what spanking offered that other forms of punishment didn’t, she responded “immediacy.” People are willing to permanently damage their children’s brains to achieve immediate compliance even when they know what the evidence says. And, if you’re thinking that perhaps spanking without the use of an object is a better option, think again. The evidence is staggering that physical (e.g. spanking, calisthenics, etc.) and emotional (e.g. public shaming, belittling, etc.) violence harms kids.

Years ago, when Adrian Peterson was being tried for abusing his toddler son, Cris Carter had this to say about right and wrong when it comes to parenting:

The harsh treatment we felt was unfair as children was unfair. We didn’t deserve it and our parents were wrong for it. The fact that we (me included) have ever felt any different is the result of the gaslighting our culture does to kids. We’re all left believing a lie. Consider times your bad experiences have been minimized. Think back to those frustrating moments when you’ve been made to believe you were overreacting when you weren’t. That’s what our culture does to children every day. Our entire culture is childist, so it’s no surprise that so many of us are convinced that it’s normal to yell at and hit kids. After all, they can be irrational and we adults have to assert our authority over them… just like men did to women not that long ago and just like white people have long done to people of color. We’ve seen this kind of discrimination carried out before. It’s not new, but kids simply don’t have enough social capital to effect change on their own.

Who would we be if our parents had been gentle and respectful with us? What would society be as a whole? Here’s the saddest part. No one can possibly know who they might have been had their parents been gentle and respectful with them. What we do know is that respectful, responsive parenting approaches are evidence-based. They succeed with all children, because they account for eventualities. They succeed across neurotypes and other differences. Even kids with Oppositional Defiant Disorder find relief with peaceful techniques.

I have great empathy for parents. I know how stressful it is to be a mom with a unique set of challenges and others have so many more challenges. What some may see as judging parents, I see as protecting kids since kids are the ones affected by childism. I’m always speaking for the child’s perspective. The unfortunate truth is that no one who experiences violence in any form, be it yelling or spanking or whatever, comes out ok on the other side. We survive and can flourish, but we still carry those scars with us and they come out in unexpected ways, like losing patience with our own children. We fall back into the patterns we knew as children and those often become our parenting vices.

If you were treated harshly like me, you did not turn out fine. You survived… with scars. But, humans are extraordinary and resilient. We can turn challenge into promise through force of will and support by people who want to see us succeed. Now that you know, here’s the inevitable choice: continue the generational trauma, or choose a completely different path. The path I chose was Peaceful Parenting. You have to find your own path, though I do hope you find your way back to this blog! I would love to support you in your efforts to improve the lives of your kids.

Peaceful Parenting and Privilege

I believe Peaceful Parenting is right for every child and every parent. There is no child on this planet who would not benefit from a respectful, gentle approach. However, Peaceful Parenting is broad and solutions are not one-size-fits-all. More important, privilege plays a major role in it.

I am a white ciswoman. I am married. My husband is employed and I am able to stay home to parent. I am able to feed and clothe my children without any worry. And, while our family’s income is not currently sufficient to support our needs without some public assistance, my husband’s retirement account is growing and I will almost certainly be the recipient of generational wealth eventually, so we have assets that many families do not. We also have extended family members who provide much of what we cannot.

To my readers who aren’t sure if they’re in the right place, I want you to know that I realize my situation is no comparison, for instance, to that of a woman of color raising children on her own, working multiple jobs, and fearing for her children’s health and safety. So, while I will always promote Peaceful Parenting and try to offer suggestions to parents who pose problems to me, I am no sanctimommy and I recognize that what works for me won’t work for everyone. I also recognize that I am representative of whiteness and a symbol of privilege. There will be parents who come to this blog and have trouble relating to what I post. It is not my place to lecture a disadvantaged person on how to be a better parent when I am shielded from the trials they face. My intention is to offer support and brainstorm ideas; not to heap more pressure onto your shoulders. As I go forward, I intend to compile resources from people who can speak to your experience in a way I cannot. I do sincerely hope that we can find common ground and that you will take something positive away from my words, whatever that might look like for you.

To readers who are more like me, particularly white readers, I want you to understand my belief is that, as a white person, I am responsible for speaking directly to other white people regarding issues of justice, particularly issues that directly impact Black people, as half of my family is Black. With that said, I defer to the expert words of Dr. Joy Degruy who explains some of the historic-cultural differences between white parents and Black parents and, proximally, why Peaceful Parenting is especially complicated for Black people. My hope is that this video will open your eyes to your own privilege and help you understand how your experience is not the same as that of people of color. I intend to bring more of this content to the blog to encourage my fellow white readers to be a disruptive force where you can to the benefit of oppressed people.