Perhaps you remember me and my son. I most certainly remember you. Remember how your son took something my kid was playing with and then you yelled at my kid that he needed to “share”?
Well, just in case, let me refresh your memory.
It was just before lunch and our families were both in the giant foam block area of the science museum. The foam block area is a really neat place. The blocks come in many different shapes and it’s possible to build many things. One family was building a giant maze. Another family was building a castle. My 4-year-old son, Wolfy, was building a house/rocket ship/boat when your son (who was maybe 3 years old) walked over and casually took one of the giant foam blocks from my son’s structure.
Wolfy started to get pretty upset.
But these kinds of conflicts happen all the time between little kids and they aren’t usually a big deal.
I thought I could easily help my son negotiate with your little boy and get his block back.
I’m trying to teach my son how to communicate effectively and independently, so I told Wolfy to let your son know that he wanted his block back. Then I stepped to the side and watched as Wolfy followed your son around saying, “Hey, that’s my block. I was using that one. Please give it back to me. I want it back.” I was proud that he was appropriately using his words and standing up for himself. Wolfy repeated this mantra over and over again but your son ignored him. I don’t blame your son for ignoring mine or for stealing the block or for holding onto it; all of this is pretty typical behavior for toddler.
Your son walked over to you. He was still clutching the block and Wolfy was still walking around behind him, fixating on getting it back. I thought you would probably try to figure out that there was a problem and talk to your child about it. But instead, you remained completely oblivious. You were distracted by your younger child, your latte, and your phone.
I want to let you know that I am in no way judging you for initially being distracted by all of those things.
I am frequently distracted by any or all of those things myself. And sometimes I look distracted but I’m really paying attention because I try to balance being a hands-off parent with a parent that is responsible and involved. It’s tricky. I make mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes. Usually I only intervene when my child asks me for help or when he does something that caused a conflict.
Because your son was being a very typical toddler and ignoring my son, I told Wolfy, to let you what was going on and to ask you for some help. He walked over to you and said, “Hey, can you help me? He just took my block. I was using it and I want it back!” But instead of asking your son to give it back, you told my child, “Well, you need to share!”
What? Excuse me? My son needs to share? My son is not the problem here.
Sharing is when two people take turns or decide to exchange something. Sharing in this situation might mean building something together or trading for a different block. Sharing is not taking someone’s stuff without asking. Sharing is not accepting that someone took something that you were using. No, that has nothing to do with sharing. That is bullying.
I should have said something to you right then and there.
But of course, I was so flustered at your reaction and Wolfy was getting upset again. So instead of speaking to you myself and asking you to intervene, I took Wolfy aside and loudly and passive aggressively told him, “It’s too bad that little boy took your block. I will try to find you one just like it.” And then we looked for a big foam block of the same size and shape to replace the one your son took. We never found a duplicate block and searching was A LOT of fun, believe me.
Finally you and your children left the block area and Wolfy ran over and retrieved the block that had been stolen from him. You see, he actually felt that he needed that exact block to finish what he was building. But you didn’t take my son seriously. You probably thought it wasn’t a big deal.
If this had happened to you or me, it probably wouldn’t be a big deal. Foam blocks are foam blocks and even though this block was a particular shape, as a grown up, I probably wouldn’t have cared if you had taken it. But what if I had come up and grabbed your latte out of your hands and just started guzzling it? Or what if I walked up and grabbed your phone out of your hands and started making a call? You probably wouldn’t be so happy, would you? You probably wouldn’t really think that I was just “sharing”. Yet this is exactly how you handled my son and his feelings.
Telling a young child, “You need to share!” is pointless because sharing is an abstract concept that involves complex interpersonal interaction. Young children need adult guidance in order to learn to share and to work through conflicts that arise around sharing. It takes effort on the part of adults and it is not fun for us to mediate disputes about blocks or string cheese or whatever kids are fighting about. But it’s important for us to take the time to figure it out and help children solve their problems if we ever want them to be able to negotiate conflict effectively and independently as adults.
Perhaps you never learned how to share and maybe that’s why you are teaching your child some really crappy behavior. When you told my son he needs to “share” you reaffirmed your child’s right to take things that don’t belong to him. That really sucks. It doesn’t help anyone. And the fact that you are more willing to yell at a stranger’s child than your own is really disturbing.
Do you really think your own child isn’t capable of inappropriate behavior?
On that day at the museum, my son certainly learned a lesson from you but it had nothing to do with sharing. The lesson he learned is that sometimes adults can be really rude and you can’t always rely on them to help you.
A few minutes after you and your cherubs left the block area, a father and son came and started building their own structure. In a few minutes they used up all the blocks in their corner.
“Excuse me,” the father said, “Do you mind if we use some of these blocks over here?” The pile of blocks was nowhere near Wolfy’s structure and yet this considerate man was just checking in.
I smiled at him and said, “Go right ahead. Thank you for asking.”
It takes all kinds to make a world. I hope I’m raising my child to be someone who is polite, generous, and considerate. But I also hope my son will stand up for himself when the need arises.
And I hope that someday, someone takes the time to teach your child how to play nicely with others and how to share. After all, it’s certainly not something he is going to learn from you.