When Sharing Doesn't Work

Every year I spend a week in St. Louis at an RCB summer camp as a counselor helping teens and children from all socioeconomic backgrounds to understand themselves and others. Along with typical fun camp activities such as scavenger hunts, capture the flag, talents shows and camp sports we spend at least three hours each morning exploring feelings and encouraging campers, while feeling unconditionally loved, to resolve conflicts and take responsibility for their choices. This year I was working with the teens and got some great insights into some of the beliefs parents instill in children at young ages that do not serve our children as maturing adults.

One morning while exploring how to set boundaries with teen peers, their was a camper, although not her real name, I will refer to as Sara in order to protect confidentiality. Sara came from an average to high socioeconomic background and came to camp against her will. At the time we were doing this boundary exercise, she had acclimated well to camp and did not feel pressured to share. We asked her to sit next to another male camper and role-play being boyfriend and girlfriend sitting in a parked car. We asked her to set a boundary with her “boy friend” as soon as she felt he was “coming on” too strong sexually. She was clearly not comfortable so Dr. Tim Jordan (the camp director) took the male camper’s place to help facilitate the exercise and make it safer for Sara to practice setting a boundary. As I facilitated the exercise Sara struggled immensely in using a firm voice to “say no” in order to set a boundary. She kept iterating that it wasn’t nice and thought that she was being mean to Dr. Tim. It took several attempts with lots of feedback about the consequences of unclear boundaries, before she broke through her “niceness” to be successful in setting a clear boundary.

I pondered over this event for a few hours asking myself “What belief system would possess Sara to give up her body and self esteem so easily?” She came from what seemed like a loving and nurturing family, where all her needs were adequately met. Suddenly a light bulb went off in my head. I asked myself this, “I wonder if Sara was forced to share when she was young.” After all, sharing is a social skill that most adults feel should be taught and we begin teaching it when they show interest in playing with others at around 18 months to 2 years of age. Typically it is taught like this: “Sara, honey? You have ten Beannie Babies and Katlyn wants to play with too. Be nice and share one with her. Sara? All Katlyn wants is just one. It’s not nice when you don’t share now please give her one of the Beannie Babies. Sara! If you don’t share one with Katlyn right now, Mommy will take the Beanie Babies away and you won’t play with them for the rest of the day. Sara! Katlyn’s going to have to leave because you are not being nice and sharing your toys!…..”

When I think back to the camp scene with Sara, I wonder if she was forced to share at this age and developed the belief that she is only good enough when she gives up what is hers. Could she have possibly transferred that belief system to her personal boundaries with her body?

I have been teaching parents and teachers for a long time about the violation of boundaries when we force children to share, but I never fully understood the negative effects until I came upon this situation in camp! Here is a beautiful 15 year old girl who was willing to risk being raped because she believed it was more important to “be nice” and possibly “share”?!

It is time that we begin to see from the child’s perspective and respect that they have boundaries, too, if we want them to be able to stand up to peer pressure (or rapist for that matter) when they are adults. It doesn’t mean we give up teaching the concept of sharing. Children will learn to share by what you model to them. If they see that you are contributing and sharing with your friends, then eventually they will too.

So then, what do we do in a moment of conflict when a child doesn’t want to share? First, bring language to the experience of each child in the situation: “Katlyn those Beannie Babies look like a lot of fun to play with and you would like Sara to give you one. Sara, you are playing with your Beanies Babies and you don’t want to share them with Katlyn right now.” Next provide the language to use that encourages sharing: “Katlyn when you want Sara to share, say, ‘Sara, I’d like to play with you. Will you give me one?’” If Sara says “no” then encourage Katlyn to say, “When you are done, I want a turn to play.” Ask Sara if she heard her and understands what Katlyn wants. At this point, nine times out of ten, the child that was not originally willing to share will surrender their toy in a matter of minutes to the child that asked to share. Usually children are willing to share when they are given some choice as to when they are ready.

It is important to also be aware of children who give up their toy, easily, in order to please the parent. All too often we take this situation and let it pass without any intervention thinking we have helped to resolve conflict. However, the child that gives up too easily is a child that already has learned that her boundaries are not as important as pleasing Daddy or Mommy. We must watch carefully for the intentions of the child surrendering a toy. Does the child have a look of remorse or resentment on her face? If so, you must encourage that child not to give up the toy unless they really want to share.

I thank God that Sara had the opportunity at camp to understand the consequences of not setting boundaries. I hope that she got the message that she has a right to say “NO” when it comes to her body. She will now have to consciously work at changing a belief about giving in or giving up herself that was programmed in her many years ago.

Let us be aware as parents that sharing can be a wonderful learning experience for children as long as we do not force it in order to meet our own needs. When we are patient and respect our children’s personal boundaries we are helping them to develop skills necessary for surviving the adult world.