I have noticed over the years that our society applies a one-size-fits-all approach to sharing, which is that all children, regardless of age, must be coached to share. So often I hear parents interrupting children's play with comments like, "Share, Johnny!," "We share our toys," "You need to share that!" One year olds, three year olds, five year olds… doesn't matter, parents have the expectation that children should share.
First of all, I find this expectation a bit of a mystery considering it is the one behavior that we, as parents, rarely model ourselves. I don't use my friends' cell phones, or share their water bottles, or push their strollers, or drive their cars, or even use their computers. Maybe I'll borrow their sun screen if I forget mine, but sharing among adults is rare. Yet we expect our kids to share before they can talk.
Second of all, why do we think we can - and, more importantly, why would we want to - hurry along the cognitive development that children need in order to grasp the concept of sharing? Alexandra at age one has no idea what sharing is about, but Katherine at age six understands. At some point in the next few years, Alexandra will figure it out too, but I strongly doubt my descending on her with orders to "share!" will have any influence over that cognitive development.
What happens if parents just sit back and let toddlers do their thing without imposing sharing on them? It's hard to find a way to observe what would happen since most parents are committed to teaching their children to share - especially at the playground or on play dates when other parents are present. But when parents don't interfere, the interaction between two toddlers over a desired toy is often just that, an interaction, and usually not about sharing at all.
I remember observing this type of interaction in a parent-toddler class, where we parents were asked to watch our children play without interfering:
A two-year-old, Suzy, discovered a toy telephone and was busy playing with it. Another toddler, Joey, went for the phone, yanking it out of Suzy's hand. Suzy screeched, yanked it back, and walked away. Joey followed her and grabbed it again. They tussled over it for a minute before Suzy let go and walked away without the phone. Joey watched her go, phone in hand, then ran back over to her and handed her the phone. She accepted it, but as soon as she did, Joey took it back again. At this point, Suzy lost interest and went off to play with something else. Joey made one more effort to give it back, but then put the phone down and also went off to play with something else. The exchange was over.
Letting this interaction unfold was fascinating - when the parental "sharing" agenda was removed, it was clear that sharing wasn't relevant to either child. Joey wanted to interact with Suzy, and he did so, in a typical, healthy, two-year-old fashion. Interrupting this exchange would not have moved them closer to understanding the concept of sharing and it would have prevented them from experiencing this perfectly appropriate social interaction.
Sometimes, though, it might be about the toy. When Katherine was two she loved doll strollers and inevitably, there was always one at the playground. As soon as Katherine saw a doll stroller, she had to have it, and once she got it, she would not let it go without a tantrum. In this case, I did need to help her negotiate the interaction with the owner, who also wanted to push the stroller around. But I found it more effective to avoid the concepts of "ownership" and "sharing." Saying something as simple as, "Katherine, when Suzy is done you may have a turn," usually worked. If Katherine already had the coveted stroller, and little Suzy wanted it back, I'd tell Katherine, "Suzy is going to push it now, and you may have it back when she is done."
What I love about the "you may have it when she is done" phrase* is that no one is tied to a time limit. I don't have to hover around the kids keeping track of "3 minute turns" or help a two-year-old count laps around a playground before insisting on giving the stroller back. I tell my child the rule (sometimes several times), then step back and let her follow through with it on her own. Of course, in reality this doesn't always work because the other parent often steps in and insists that Suzy share, it blows up into a big thing and we spend half of the playground visit fussing over how our children share. Then I don't get to sip my coffee and chat with other parents... which is the whole reason I go to the playground in the first place.
I wonder, what if... what if parents just stepped back and let their kids do their thing?
*All credit for this strategy goes to Ms. Christine.