A couple of friends who have babies or toddlers have recently brought up the topic of sharing; more precisely, should we expect young children to share?  One friend feels like a bad mom when her baby snatches his toys away from another baby.  Another mom pointed out that at the playground she always hears moms telling their toddlers: “You need to share; nice children share.”

Dr. Montessori observed possessiveness in young children and realized that it stemmed from a lack of opportunities to engage in activities that were conducive to the child’s development.  In The Secret of Childhood she writes that children are driven by nature to look for opportunities to interact with their environment in productive ways: “He seeks for things that can nourish his spirit, and he finds his nourishment in activity.”  If a child fails to find “food” for development, and is surrounded only by mindless toys, he becomes “attracted simply to ‘things’ and desires to possess them.”

People often wonder how a Montessori teacher can keep the peace among 25 pre-schoolers when there’s only one material of each kind in the classroom.  Parents probably envision knock-down, drag-out fights for the Pink Tower, but in reality conflicts over materials are one of the least-common issues in the classroom.  I guess it goes back to what Dr. Montessori wrote: when children are engaged in productive activities in their environment (which is what the Montessori materials provide), they lose their possessiveness and turn their energies towards development.

Limits also help: the Montessori guide reminds the children that when somebody is using a material, it is theirs for as long as they want to engage with it productively.  If another child wants the same material, the teacher offers two choices: the child can either sit down to wait for his classmate to finish and put the material away, or he can choose another material.   A skilled guide will identify why the child is interested in said material and will find another activity that satisfies that need.  Of course, two children might agree on their own to share the material and are able to do so productively, which is great!  However, this mostly happens spontaneously and effectively among older children (5-6 years of age), which brings me to my next point…

Sharing is a characteristic that emerges with age.  Just like you can’t force a child to walk or talk, you can’t force a child to spontaneously and joyously share.  Yes, they will let other children play with their toys if you threaten or bribe or nag long enough, but the willingness to share won’t come from within.  Pushing a child to share will only create resentment and hoarding because the child will feel a lack of control over his belongings.  The same three-year old who refuses to share his toys will, upon turning six or seven, give you the shirt off his back.  Parents of elementary-aged children often complain because their child gave away his lunch, lent a friend his jacket, or swapped shoes with a classmate.  That same parent, just a few years ago, might have been concerned because their child wasn’t sharing his toys!

If you compare a Montessori Primary classroom with an Elementary classroom, this developmental aspect will become clear.  A Primary classroom is set up with individual tables and one chair per table, because Dr. Montessori observed that most children choose to work on their own.  The Elementary classroom has large tables with several chairs placed around the table, to support the children’s desire to work in a group.  There is still only one material of each kind in the Elementary classroom, but the children willingly share it and thrive from teamwork.  I always find it funny/sad how many traditional schools flip this around: they make pre-schoolers sit in group settings, which totally messes with their concentration, and they force elementary students to sit in rows, which goes against their natural desire to collaborate.

I will leave you with a sweet story that the awesome Montessori mom over at Montessori Beginnings kindly shared with me.  Her pre-school aged daughter attends a Montessori school and was tackling a challenging material called the Roman Arch.  She couldn’t quite figure it out so she got up from her chair for a few minutes.  When she returned, a child who was new to the classroom was seated at her chair working with the material.  As she later told her mom: “He stole my work!”  However, she didn’t confront him or tell the teacher.  She decided to observe the boy, who eventually managed to put together the arch.  Because the material was supporting the girl’s development, she was more interested in learning how to complete the arch than in possessing the physical object.    Also notice that the teacher did not interfere; often children will share spontaneously when not being pushed and cajoled by anxious adults.

The next time your child chooses not to share, remember that it’s not a reflection of your ability to parent, nor is it a reflection of your child’s lack of social skills.  Offer the children purposeful activities that support their growth and before you know it the toys, possessiveness, and arguments will have been forgotten.

(From what I understand, Montessori is not the only philosophy that supports a child’s need to not share.  I read somewhere that young children in Waldorf schools and homes are also respected when they want to engage with a toy by themselves.  I would love it if someone who knows more about Waldorf could corroborate this for me!)

15 thoughts on “Sharing”

  1. I absolutely love this and the additional insights into why young children don’t share. When my son was around 2, I’d learned enough and decided I wasn’t going to force him to share anymore, but I wasn’t really sure how to go about it. It was a bit of a disaster for a while, and I know I upset other mothers as my son took others’ toys habitually. Now he’s almost 4, and although he still has his moments, he is also so generous with others (especially very young children) and even his brother at home. It’s been so wonderful to see him grow and have that motivation to share from within — knowing that it comes from his own good intentions and not simply a desire to please us.

    1. Many of our parenting choices will be unpopular with other parents…This is such a challenge! I love this, though: “it comes from his own good intentions and not simply a desire to please us”. I think this is what we have to keep in mind when we make our choices, popular or not!! 🙂 Thanks for sharing your experience, I know that I and many of my readers will find it useful.

  2. Two thumbs up! Thanks for bringing this up. I believe that many adults simply do not realize that sharing should not be a goal placed upon the very young child. I know from training that it is not developmentally appropriate practice, but I have often thought that it is not even reasonable to expect children to share everything. Your piece was full of pertinent and accurate information. And yes, Waldorf isns

    1. Well, I think it depends on the child’s age. With a baby/young toddler, I would just show him one of his toys and return the other child’s toy. If it gets chronic, I would try to keep him away from the other children’s toys for a while (you can’t really reason with babies, you can only control their environment). Most babies aren’t terribly bothered if someone takes their toy. With a pre-schooler, I would first see if the action affected the other child negatively. If the child didn’t seem bothered, I wouldn’t do anything; toys come alive in the hands of other children, and that’s a main reason why children take them from other children! If the child who lost his toy seems upset, I would point out to the taker that what he did made the other child sad and I would ask him to return the toy or I would ask him to offer another toy to that child. You can also ask him how it would make him feel if another child took his toy away. It really depends on the particular situation and the children’s personalities, but what’s important is that you help the child understand the social consequences of his actions. If it becomes chronic, you can also pre-empt the situation beforehand by telling the child: “You are going to play with Johnny and you are not going to take away his toy when he is playing with it; you are going to choose your own toys. If you decide to take a toy away from Johnny, we are going to have to leave Johnny’s house and you can no longer play with him.” This type of prompting works well even with 3 & 4-yr olds as long as you are consistent and follow through with the consequences.

  3. Thank you for this valuable and informative post! I am a first-time mommy. My son is just 2 weeks old but I love receiving your posts which will be helpful with my boy in the future. I always knew that forcing a child to share his toys was somewhat unfair to the child but could not explain why to friends who are mothers. Your explanation and reasoning is spot on regarding the psychology behind it. Thank you!

  4. Great post on a very relevant topic. My daughter is 2 and is currently smack -dab in the middle of the not-wanting-to-share phase. It’s slowly improving, however, but I always feel a pressure when we are with other children and parents to force her to share. All I do now is before we are meeting with other children, I remind her that the toys are there for everyone to play with (they’re not all “mine!” they’re “ours”). If children are coming our place I do the thing where we put away her favourite toy (a baby doll) and if she refuses to share a certain toy with them, I’ll ask her to choose other toys that she is willing to share with them. Not sure if I’m doing the “right” thing, but it seems to working for us…for now! 🙂

    1. I think those are some great suggestions! I also find that what helps is asking other parents to bring a couple of toys from their own house, because children will always find other kids’ toys to be more interesting, although then you set yourself up for parents who bring flashy noisy plastic stuff… You’re right, there IS a lot of pressure among parents to get kids to share, it’s so unfortunate! It’s already started with my 7-month old (!), I can’t imagine when he turns 2.

  5. I can see how this could work very well in a Montessori classroom, but what about in a non-neutral environment where the majority of the toys belong to one child? Should the rule be for the child that is in possession of the toy at the time can play with it as long as they are playing with it productively, or do you respect the fact that it is the first child’s property? In most situations, you can really only control your own child, so what do you do when some kid is constantly snatching from yours, and their mom doesn’t seem to notice or care while your child is constantly distraught?

    1. The rule, IMO, would be for the child who has the toy to play with it for as long as they want. It is your responsibility to give them the language for their interaction, for example: “Sally will give Johnny the car when she’s done playing with it.” But if a child is constantly snatching things away, I would re-direct the other child towards another activity or even a different room if that child is showing signs of being distraught.

      1. But is it ok to strip away the ownership of the toy in sharing situations, especially when the child isn’t yours? I recently went with my daughter to visit my father. My 3 yr old half-sister is 11 months older than my daughter and was constantly snatching, but the toys were hers, and my ability to reason with her, even in light of her playing with the few toys I did bring for my daughter, was quite limited, and they couldn’t be left alone (happily) for more than five minutes in the presence of toys. They played so well together in the ABSENCE of toys that I just wanted to put them all up!

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