The weekend before last, we popped into Great World City to pick up a fan for the new sunroom. I managed to snap these photos of Ryan while I was waiting for Richard at the children's area outside the shop. Ryan was playing a game on his iPhone (building shapes) and an older boy came along and took an interest in it. The older boy was accompanied by his family's maid/helper. In the first photo, Ryan shows him how the game is played. In the second and third photos, you can see that the boy has taken the phone from Ryan and is playing the game while Ryan looks on.





Once the older boy took the phone, Ryan never asked for the phone back. He was never worried about it, not even when the older boy refused to share or let Ryan near it (when he thought Ryan was going to take the phone back, he would either turn his back towards Ryan or hold out his hand to block Ryan from getting near). In fact, after a while, Ryan left it completely to the older boy and just walked away, happily sitting with the other children in front of the TV. The maid/helper eventually returned the phone to me. I didn't say a word throughout this entire period, I just watched them.

Richard and I have never taught Ryan the concept of sharing and we've never talked about it with him. All this while, I felt that it was too early for him to comprehend such a concept. I also realised that, the need for the lesson usually only came about as a corrective measure. I felt that, if a correction is needed when a child is of such a tender age, then the correction probably goes against the child's natural tendencies, meaning that the issue required a more fundamental change in the child.

Let me be clear that I am not saying that teaching a child to share is unnatural. A child may naturally share. A child may also, naturally, not share. What is natural to the child depends on the child. What I am saying is that, up till now and for the time being, instead of giving Ryan an outright lesson on sharing, I prefer to focus on putting certain fundamentals in place first. I believe that, from there, sharing should manifest naturally, at least most of the time. To talk to Ryan about sharing before the fundamentals were in place was, to me, putting the cart before the horse.

The true lesson of sharing is not an easy one to fully understand and apply. It is that, in sharing, the benefits that everyone gains can multiply, for example, two children playing with the same toys together derive more happiness than two children each playing alone. One plus one become more than two. However, a cost-benefit analysis is based on advanced logic and reason, and is an exercise that a three-year old should not be expected to meaningfully process. 

If this lesson is taught too early, before the child is capable of comprehension, there is increased danger that the true message cannot be properly and fully conveyed. For example, in many situations involving toddlers, parents get their toddler to "share" simply by forcing them to give up the toy to another child, who is crying for the toy. The first toddler is not given a choice even though he/she may have had no desire to play with other children. Done this way, the lesson doesn't impart the essence of sharing. The toddler may not be developmentally capable of understanding why he/she has to cut short his/her play and give up the toy, especially if he/she was on his/her best behaviour all the while. In fact, it may only teach the child that the stronger person or the loudest person wins. Also, done this way, the toddler has no chance to process the situation or to process the reasons for what is happening. He/she is simply following instructions, bowing to external pressure. There is no chance for him/her to learn how to self-regulate or how to exercise self-control.

[I am NOT saying that parents should not try to get their children to give up their toys to make other children feel better. In social settings with young children, it is common to find children fighting over toys, and parents do want to keep the peace. What I am saying is that, while getting a child to sacrifice the toy achieves peacekeeping or other objectives, it is less effective as a lesson in sharing.]

Right now, Ryan has no problem sharing but not because of any logic or reason or any sense of social obligation. It is completely natural, borne of his strong sense of security which sits upon the rock-solid knowledge that he is loved unconditionally. That sense of security was the first fundamental thing that had to be in place. The second fundamental was to show him that human interaction is always, always based on kindness, respect and dignity.

In practical terms what this means is that we have never refrained from showering Ryan with tons of love and attention, both emotionally and physically. It was, of course, completely natural for us to do so but it was also consistent with the first fundamental I mentioned - helping Ryan to build a strong sense of security. Here, I must say that, it is not the same as knowing in your heart that you love your child - I'm talking about actually demonstrating your love to your child, in concrete and tangible form. Sharing then comes naturally to Ryan because he doesn't feel that he needs to compete, he never feels left out, and he never feels ignored.

Then, consistent with the second fundamental, we've always treated Ryan with kindness, respect and dignity, modelling the way we'd like him to interact with others. Sharing then comes naturally to Ryan because that's what he sees happening around him - nobody around him is unreasonably withholding anything (toys, love, affection, attention, etc), nobody is purposely making others feel ignored or neglected, everyone is being considerate, kind and generous.

I'm not saying that Ryan will always share because of all this. I'm sure that, as he grows up, he will face many tests and there will be specific social situations where he will need specific guidance. There may even be a stage when he suddenly decides that he does not want to share, for whatever reason. Hopefully, these instances will be few and far between, and when Ryan is able to reason sophisticatedly, to comprehend ideas that are less than straightforward, we will explain the concept of sharing to him.

I have to add that our approach does not mean that Ryan gets to behave unreasonably or rudely or inconsiderately. If we cannot attend to his needs immediately, there is always an honest reason and we will explain it to him. If he is behaving like a brat, we will deal with the brattiness first.

Otherwise, we do not restrict Ryan from touching/playing with things (unless there is danger involved) or from fully participating in what goes on. We don't purposely deprive Ryan of things that he wants or make him wait for no reason other than to wait (and I include the "cry it out" method here, which incidentally, has been retracted in significant degree by the person who came up with it). Some parents may think that, by withholding things or making children wait for no reason, they are teaching their children to be patient, to share and to wait their turn. This method makes no sense to me and, to risk sounding harsh, I regard it as emotional abuse and blackmail. At this stage of development, the object becomes more attractive to the child when it is withheld or when other people are fighting over it, so withholding it for the sake of training an emotional response is, to me, plain cruel. It may actually make the situation worse - instead of cultivating patience, there is a risk that the child may instead become possessive over his belongings and feels that he is "losing out" if someone else was playing with his toys, because he never knows when they will be withheld from him. Worse, the child may start to wonder what he's done wrong to deserve this sort of treatment. The parents create self-doubt, anxiety, worry and desperation in the child and, to speak colloquially, cultivate a sense of "kiasu-ness". It is an emotional lesson that weighs heavily on the child and the child quickly learns that this is how he should treat others in similar situations, that this is how it's done. 

There were a few articles on French parenting that were making the internet rounds a while ago, describing how children are made to wait, how the children are made to understand that they are not the centre of the universe, etc. and the children seem to grow up fine, with impeccable manners. If you are reading these articles, please include the one that set off the debate. This first article paints the horrendous picture of French parenting, which prompted the subsequent articles defending and espousing its virtues. I do not say that the French are wrong in their approach. My view is that their approach is a product of countless generations being brought up that way, either resulting in or as a result of the particular way their culture and society is ordered. If you are not part of the French culture and you are considering adopting the ways of the French, I urge you to re-consider all the articles in context. Consider the French culture, the French education system, the French ideas of social etiquette, the French understanding that social status is a strong determinant of the child's future - all of which is, mostly, inconsistent with ours. I would also urge you to read up on more perspectives, like the American perspective and the Asian perpective. Consider what the primary aim of French parenting is (French, American and Asian parenting each have different primary aims) and consider whether anything may have been sacrificed to achieve that primary aim.

As always, this post sets out my personal views and what works for our family. I hope that, by setting out my thoughts in detail, it will provide a well-considered perspective to the issue. Without detracting from the fact that I believe this approach to be one of the generally better approaches, I do note that there are many other approaches to this issue which may be better suited to other families' specific preferences and circumstances. If you're thinking about this topic then do keep an open mind, do read up and do thorough research (including talking to other parents) and talk it over with your spouse before deciding what's best and workable for you and your family. 

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