I was recently sitting in a café working when a customer came up to me demanding I share my laptop with her because she needed to finish some writing.
"Go away!" I screamed at her, "it's my laptop."
"That's so unfair!" she flipped out, and started to pull it out of my hand.
The waiter rushed over because of the commotion and told me that I had been writing for over an hour and I should be considerate of this other customer and let her have some time on MY laptop.
Ok, I'm clearly joking (maybe not so clearly, since it's not so funny) but how crazy would it be if that actually happened?
Pretty crazy, right?
But that's probably what our kids think when they're playing and we interfere under the guise of "teaching them to share."
We've all heard the story that evolution is about survival of the fittest and that you succeed only by dominating or destroying the competition. But we've also all heard that cooperation and fairness in sharing yield better outcomes for everyone involved.
But is there really a strategy that is more "right" or more sustainable?
Before you wonder whey I'm asking myself these crazy questions (no, it's not because my two kids keep me sleep-deprived and up at the oddest hours of the night), remember I have a toddler who goes to school, and to the park, and to play dates where these issues often come up. (For the record, it breaks my heart seeing we live in a world that is so transient, and so competitive, a world where kids are overloaded and over-scheduled to the point "play" becomes contrived and has to fit into outlook calendars so that even fun becomes a chore.)
But personal ideas and ideals aside, I am constantly questioning how to best raise my daughters and prepare them for the world they are inheriting.
Do I teach them to be kind or to be tough?
Do I teach them to obey or bend the rules?
Do I teach them to be altruistic or opportunistic?
Do I even have the power to teach them any of these things at all or are they born a certain way?
I comfort (or maybe delude) myself by thinking I have some influence over these outcomes through my parenting style... and that is why I have decided that I will not tell my toddler daughter to "share" when she is playing with her friends.
You see, growing up, I never went on a "play-date" because we had neighbors, cousins, and classmates and we played together spontaneously. Our mothers weren't our scheduling assistants and they definitely didn't have to like each other for us kids to be friends or play together.
Of course I ran home to my mom some days and complained about the girl who wouldn't share her toy, or the boy who shoved me, or the girl who called me a bad name, and I was given advice on how to handle it the next time.
But barring fighting that became too rough or harmful and was broken up, I hardly recall a time when my mother, or someone else's, dictated how we interacted while playing.
As a result, most of my social skills came about from actual social interaction that was largely unmonitored. While I've had my fair share of social handicaps and mishaps, I have grown from those experiences into someone who shares, gives, and collaborates, but who also knows when to stand her ground.
So I don't want to deprive my daughters of the opportunity to learn for themselves what life - and social interactions -- are all about.
And you know what? So far, I think it works.
Whenever my oldest daughter is playing with friends, I watch from afar to make sure they don't hurt each other or themselves (after all, they're 2 and 3 year olds who find head-butting, bed-jumping, and balcony banisters extremely entertaining). But otherwise, it's a free rein in toddler-land.
And I have noticed a certain growth in her behavior.
Initially shy and overly generous, she has now learned to stand up for herself without running to mommy crying. There are times she refuses to share and times when someone is refusing to share with her. There are times when she cries and gets upset, and other times when she cuddles a crying friend. Sometimes she settles for a different toy and other times she offers the different toy to her friend so she can keep playing with the one she wants.
But through it all, I never interfere and force her to share -- or ask someone to share with her -- because I think the most important outcomes of social interaction are the lessons you learn about life.
Like learning that life is sometimes unfair or that mommy can't solve all your problems.
Or learning to pick and choose your battles.
You also learn about altruism and when it is a sustainable choice.
You learn rationality and how tit-for-tat interactions work.
You learn to make choices and you learn when to set boundaries.
You learn to negotiate and to use your brain to get what you want.
You learn patience and that you can't have everything you want when you want it.
So you see, it's not that I don't believe in sharing.
Sharing, kindness, empathy, and politeness are all virtues I want to instill in my kids. But to bring up the topic of sharing when someone has just grabbed something from your kid is a sure-fire way to raise kids who won't want to share.
I want my daughters to learn about life by actually living it. Since the stakes are not too high at this young age, lessons about sharing can be taught at a time when they are more likely to be absorbed -- at a time when a young mind is not being hijacked by big emotions.
The more important and timeless lesson to learn though it all is how to deal with life as it happens, and that, oddly enough, can only be taught by giving our children the space to learn on their own.