With a little one coming soon in our family, I have obviously reflected a lot about … siblings. And inescapably, about sharing. My daughter has lived the first 4 years of her life as an only child and the first 3 years, as the only grand-child on both sides of our family.
And now, here comes a sibling. She has to share with him our space, her toys, our time and even us, her parents. Everything!
Everything? From a very young age, children are expected to share. I think that the word “share” is the most used word in regular gatherings, playgroups, playdates and on the playgrounds. The fear that children won’t learn how to properly share and will become self-centered adults, combined with a tendency to consider that children, especially young ones, don’t have properties lead us to having very high expectations about their ability to share. Expectations that go beyond what we expect from other adults and from ourselves.
But how much we, as grown-ups, are willing to share? How much do we actually share? In a family, with our partner, with our children, with friends, colleagues, with strangers? These are the first questions we need to ask ourselves. And the answers are very personal. We all have our limits when it comes to sharing. And so do children.
No matter how many children you have, here are some ideas that worked for us and that you might want to consider when it comes to sharing (and especially between siblings)
Create a “sharing culture” in your family that is genuine and comes from the heart
In order to genuinely share (with their siblings or with friends), children need to see other people around them doing it. Be clear with what you share in your family and what you don’t. And when you decide to share something, do it sincerely and happily and show them that sharing is enjoyable.
Probably a habit from our travels and years spent in Asia, we love sharing food in our family and sometimes order several dishes in restaurants that we all share. This is something we do joyfully and it’s always a happy moment for all of us. Of course it also requires to be mindful about the other people around the table who might want the same piece of sushi you do. We share food this way because we feel comfortable about it, but every family is different and defines differently their “sharing culture”.
Role model sharing. As parents we need to do what we preach. Our children learn from what they see us doing, not from what we tell them to do.
One of the most tricky things in our home is that, although we have enough space, our house is a big open space that we all need to share. My husband and I share the same desk when we work at home and our office is also our homeschooling space and our guest room. My daughter doesn’t have a room on her own and her playspace is in the middle of the house, an area that we also use as sitting space.
When we thought it was the time to prepare the house for the baby, we progressively gave up some of our personal space before we talked about changing the setting in my daughter’s playspace to make some room for the baby. She still didn’t like the idea, but she was not the only one who was giving up some of her personal space.
“Mine, yours, ours”. Think about the things that are only yours, the things that you are sharing with your partner, and those you all share in your family. Children have the same rights about their possessions. Talk to them about these different categories.
Until recently, all the toys where my daughter’s toys and all the children’s books in our house where hers too. Or rather, to be honest, we never thought about that when she was the only child around. But with another child coming we had to think about it: what are her possessions and what are things that belong to the whole family (and to her sibling)?
We have reflected all together several times and pointed out that we can’t buy everything double. So we need to find a fair way of sharing for the toys, books and materials that are already there. We decided to divide objects into two categories: all the books and toys that were gifted to my daughter are of course, only hers and if someone else wanted to use them, they needed to ask permission first. Also, all the materials, books and toys that we bought her because she had a long-lasting passion (for example horses) will continue to be only hers. The others objects are to be shared in the family, therefore with her sibling.
If, like in our family, your children need to share the same space/ room, consider having separate shelves where they can keep their belongings separately: one for each child with their private possessions and one for the objects to be shared among the siblings.
Avoid conflicting messages If you want to encourage your child to share a snack with a friend at the playground, he will have troubles understanding why you don’t share your piece of cake with him when he asks you to. As human beings we are all full of contradictions but when interacting with children we need to stick to a coherent message
Encourage empathy, care of others and generosity- again, by role modeling
When we connect with our children from a place of empathy and gentleness they learn these skills and naturally use them when interacting with other children. Empathy, generosity and care of others are the roots of genuine sharing.
Encourage authentic sharing that comes from the heart and it’s not imposed from outside
Forcing children to share usually ends up in resentful sharing. And between siblings, this is the starting point for more troubles. When we have the patience and the courage to step back and let children manage their own interaction, without rushing them to share a toy, something beautiful might happen. They sometimes decide on their own that they do want to share. When this decision comes genuinely, from the bottom of their heart, their whole face shines when they give that toy or book the other child. They feel joyful and happy about their own decision. Sometimes this sharing lasts only for 1 minute but then both children look content. When you see that look, you know it’s authentic sharing. Don’t expect it to happen all the time though. What matters is the authenticity of the decision they make.
Work with your children in finding ways to share that are comfortable and authentic for them
When your little one has friends for a playdate at home, have a tour of the playspace before they come and let your child choose which are the toys he/ she wants to share. All children have their treasured and favorite toys that they don’t want someone else to play with. These ones can be put away in a closed cupboard or a different room..
With a sibling, it’s a bit different, she doesn’t go home after a playdate. Therefore, we need to work together as a family so that each child can find ways to share that are comfortable and authentic for her. It’s something that can be done gradually. I know that sharing the playspace will probably be tricky for my daughter when her sibling will start to crawl and be interested in what she is building with her blocks, so we started with something that was less important for her: sharing her baby clothes that anyway were too small for her to wear. She felt comfortable about sharing those.
Learning to ask permission first
This is very important as it fosters our children’s confidence and trust that they matter as persons. It also helps them to learn about consent and about establishing boundaries.
It is also something we need to role model first. My daughter loves coming to our desk in our home office because there are so many interesting things to see. She loves all the notebooks that we keep on the desk and wants to draw on them. But some of them are my journals and they are private. It would be easier to just let her do because she can’t read them yet. And I could carry on with my work undisturbed. But these are my private journals. So each time she comes to my desk and wants to open a notebook I tell her that she needs to ask permission first. Some of them are private and she can’t open them.
And then of course, we need be coherent in our interactions. When I brought out my daughter’s baby clothes I told her that these were her clothes and asked her if the new baby could use them. She saw that they were too small for her so she seemed very happy to give them to the baby. A week later she showed me she understood what asking permission was about. I had just finished to knit a poncho for the baby and it was much bigger than expected. She tried it on and it was actually her size. I saw in her eyes that she would have loved to wear it. But I have knitted for the baby and she knew that. I asked her if she would love to borrow the poncho from the baby. She was so happy about the idea but stopped and said: “How we can ask him if it’s ok for me to borrow it?” I said “You can ask him, he can hear you” so she put her lips on my belly and asked the baby if he can let her borrow his poncho. Interestingly the baby kicked my belly in a playful way and both of us had the feeling that this was a “yes”. She wore the knitted poncho only a couple of times so in the end it was not about the poncho, but rather a beautiful learning experience about asking permission, giving and receiving back.
Help your children learn how to set limits and to communicate them in a respectful way. Sometimes learning to share means learning how NOT TO share and how you can say “no” in a respectful way. Let’s be honest, we as adults we don’t share everything either. I don’t share my computer and my email address with my husband and neither does him. Some of my friends don’t share the same bank account with their partners. Would you let someone you just met on the street look into your mobile phone? We all have things we are willing to share and others we aren’t.
And just like us, children have to know and set their own limits about what they want to share and learn how to communicate their boundaries.
If a sibling or a child they just met at the playground wants to play with their favorite toy and they don’t want to, then they need to learn to say “no”. If another child wants to play with them and they don’t feel like, they have the right to say “no, thank you, maybe later”. Again, this is something we need to role model so that they can communicate their limits in a respectful way to the other person.
To go further, Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish’s Book, “Siblings Without Rivalry” is a precious ressource.
That was a long post! Much longer than expected! Probably because I believe this is such an important topic, especially between siblings (but not only!) Sharing is a skill we learn and the family is the perfect “laboratory” for this. I’m sure I will have much more to tell about it in a couple of months!
I would love to hear your own learning experiences and how your children navigate “sharing” here in the comments or on Instagram