Sarah Schmermund, MA

Sarah Schmermund is a child development and parenting expert and specializes in couples work and marriage counseling.

Good Morning America recently produced a segment titled Should Little Kids be Forced to Share in Preschool?highlighting what GMA calls a new “trend” in some preschools that claim that they are teaching children “that they shouldn’t share.”

My response: Um…what?

In case you missed it, you can still see the segment here. The premise is that forcing a child to give up a toy gives the receiving child a sense of entitlement. According to mommy blogger Beth Wankel, whose son attends a preschool with a “no-sharing” policy, “If one of the kids has a toy and someone else wants it we are not going to make them give it up until they are totally done.” “If you ask them to give up a toy and you go and take it from them that’s no different than another kid taking it from them, which we would never allow.”


Sharing, as far as I understand it, has never been defined in this way. To “share” has never meant that a child must immediately relinquish a toy because another child expresses an interest in playing with said toy.

The GMA article goes on to explain that, in practice, the no-sharing policy means that, “only when a child is done playing with something can another child take the toy.”

Again, um…what?

I’m sorry, but this “no-sharing policy” sounds a whole lot like sharing to me. Actually, it sounds exactly like sharing.

“Mommy, I want to play with that truck but that girl won’t give it to me.”

“Well, was she playing with it first?”

“Yes, but I want to play with it now.”

“I can understand that, sweetie, but if she is playing with it, you will need to wait your turn and can play with it when she is finished.”

When did we stop saying this? When did we start standing up and marching across the sandbox to tell that little girl, “Time’s up; give my kid your toy”?

When did we redefine “sharing”?

According to Beth Wankel, decades ago. The GMA article cites an excerpt from Beth’s blog: “This is not how things work in the real world. In your child’s adult life, he’s going to think he’s owed everything he sees. This is already happening in the next generation. I read a fascinating article about how today’s teens and twenty-somethings are expecting raises and promotions at their jobs for reasons like, ‘I show up every day.’ And she says just because I want your iPad or your sweater I can’t just walk up to you and take it.”

I find even the suggestion of “forced sharing” as the cause of the entitlement “problem” she’s describing (which I argue isn’t as much of a “problem” as some may suggest, nor does it represent the generation as whole, but that’s for another day) a bit far-fetched, to say the least. To further suggest, then, that the answer to such entitlement breeding “extreme sharing” is to swing to the other side and say “no-sharing” (even though it looks exactly like sharing) seems a bit “extreme,” no?

Maybe the issue here, at either extreme, is the over-involvement of adults and parents in the sharing process at all. Because, as preschool director Tovah Klein, a no-sharing policy supporter, did well to point out, “if you … leave children to their own devices they actually work out conflict remarkably well.” Play and social interaction with peers is the way in which children develop and put into practice skills like delayed gratification, perspective taking, and conflict resolution, all of which are encompassed in sharing.

But we have to give them the room (and time) in which to do it.

I agree with all of the points offered by both the supporters and critics of “no-sharing” in the article. To me, though, they look exactly the same. It’s a socially adaptive expression of a necessary skill set, but it’s also a developing one. This semantics issue, I think, is more adult driven, as parents, worry and work to ensure their two-year-old is cooperative and considerate and not entitled (but not a pushover!). But two (or three or four) year olds aren’t really capable of any of those things yet.

In fact, they’re developmentally supposed to be entitled; they are supposed to feel like their caretakers and environment will meet their basic needs so that they are able to explore and (eventually) learn the limits of those entitlements (I’m entitled to food but not any food I can imagine at any given moment I can imagine it, including if it’s sitting in front of that other kid).

And maybe because we have unrealistic expectations of what developmentally appropriate behaviors look like (they are confusing!), our efforts don’t work, so instead we just try to remove or prevent the conflicts inherent to social development all together. No one wants to be parent with the three-year-old who hits, so we may opt to telling him he always or never has to share (whichever makes him hit less!). But then our four-year-old turns into a five, six, seven-year-old who lacks the skills she was supposed be developing within the social conflicts of the previous developmental stage.

Developmental stages are like video game levels; you have to master certain skills or tasks before moving ahead to the next. We can’t teach a three year old to be considerate; it’s too abstract and requires perspective taking (which his brain isn’t capable of doing yet). But we can teach him that letting another kid play with a toy when he is done is a desirable behavior by praising it. We can also teach him that hitting a kid trying to take his toy is not desirable by enforcing appropriate consequences, and that expressing himself verbally instead of physically is desirable, again by praise or reward.

The underlying constructs of things like “manners” and being “considerate” of others come later, with age and time and repeated exposure to each and every situation specific test. After you’ve reinforced these teachings (what feels like) a hundred billion times (“What did we just talk about?! Do not hit!”), the brain will eventually be able to compile all of those unique experiences and clump them together under the “nice” or “considerate” category umbrella. Thus, the abstract concept of what it means to be considerate, to think about another person’s feelings, is (finally) established.

Congratulations, you’re ready to advance to the next level.

Photo credit: platinumblondelife / / CC BY

What do you think?

2 Responses to “When Did We Redefine ‘Sharing’?”

  1. When Did We Redefine ‘Sharing’? | Parents Space Guest Blog | In Your Corner Says:

    [...] Click here to read more about why some preschools are teaching children not to share. [...]

  2. Mary Anne Ostrum Says:

    I agree with you. What the preschools are teaching is sharing and to call it not sharing is an injustice to the children. When they move out of the preschool setting they will have had it ingrained that they don’t have to “share” when actually they were being taught to share. Confusing to me… doubly confusing to them I am sure.
    Nice article. Socailly sad topic. Where are we going?
    I think that people need to take everyone into consideration when they decide to teach the next generation something “new and different”. I can’t even imagine my parents reactions to their grandchildren if they came home with this new “no sharing” policy being taught….
    Something to ponder.

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