Updated: Dec 27, 2020
Yes, self-worth over sharing. I said what I said, and I myself thought the idea was rubbish until 1 year ago...when it became clear I was compromising my child's self-worth for a lesson on generosity.
This post is so overdue, I've been wanting to write this to A. communicate such an important message and B. publicly give credit to one of my best friends who taught me SO much about what it means to respect my child (I'll refer to her as my sis for now).
So let’s get into it…sharing is caring right? Yes, caring for others. Thing is our kids must first learn to care for themselves...their needs, their cup. After all, aren't we all only able to optimally care for and give to others when our own cup is full, when we are feeling whole and complete ourselves? I realize it’s not always possible, but if it can be helped this is the ideal.
Walk down memory lane with me and it will make more sense if it doesn’t already.
I'll never forget that day (though my sis may have, it's only one of the many times she's saved me from myself). Our kids are best friends and this season last year, we were spending a lot more time together. My son and I were going through tough times and my sis made it her business to be a rock for my family; frankly my son and I wouldn’t be where we are today if it hadn’t been for all her love and support (and my parents who moved mountains to fly down whenever they could).
I want to share this day in as much detail as possible so that you can feel as if you were there, by my side, witnessing the revelation unfold. I obviously don’t recall all that was said verbatim, but this is pretty close.
On this particular day we were out on a playdate at an indoor playhouse. My son immediately gravitated towards this red car ride-on, he jumped on it and rode it around the play area, his face beamed with excitement. He loved it so much he even dragged it with him inside the tight, little playhouses. It was odd to me, as I hadn't seen such an attachment to toys especially in a public place.
He was parked by a playhouse when a much younger boy came up to him gesturing interest in the car. My son quickly clenched the steering wheel and anxiously turned to me as my meddling ass approached them both,
"Honey, the little boy wants to ride this, let's share alright?"
He nervously, but firmly responded "I'm still using it," and then sped off.
I was stunned, then I just saw red, "BOOOY! The utter disobedience &!$^%*($!@..." you might be able to imagine what obscenities played out in my head as I stomped over following him, demanding his compliance,
"KALEV, I was speaking to you and you drove off. How rude?! The little boy wants to use the car, you've used it for 15 minutes that's a long time,"
I might as well have growled as I angrily muttered "give him the car RIGHT this second…
(then threw in a dose of shame) your teachers always praised you for sharing with the younger kids, remember? What's gotten into you?"
My son did. not. budge. He sat firmly on his car, stared me down and said "NO. I SAID I'm not done with it."
I wanted to scream back “you think you’re doing something real important here huh, standing up for yourself, for what? A damn toy?!” I had a wee bit more self-control than I did the prior years so I kept those thoughts to myself and took a deep breath. I was flooded with anxiety though, more thoughts raced in my mind, goodness what kind of person is my son becoming, so selfish, where did I go wrong, I’m a terrible mom, the list goes on.
I was getting ready to rip him off the car when my sis intervened and literally wedged her entire body between my son and I turning herself into a human shield. My son looked so relieved to have a shield from his big, scary, clueless mommy.
My sis gently pulled me aside and tried to talk me down as I pleaded “NO. This is not right, he's had that car for a while now, he knows better than that young boy, this is ridiculous. Why is he being so selfish?!"
My rage in this moment was two-fold, yes I wanted my son to be polite, show some manners and consideration to others but I was also a little embarrassed that I did not appear to have a handle on my child, or that others would judge his behavior, worse, me. I felt eyes on my back when in reality the younger boy’s mom was chatting on her phone and hadn't the slightest clue what was even going on.
My sis whispered to me "it's okay" as she swiftly grabbed another available ride-on nearby and carried it over to the younger boy. She got down on her knees, made eye contact with him, flashed a smile and offered it to him. He gladly accepted, jumped on the car, and off he went.
I now realize that what I viewed in that moment as irrefutably enabling behavior was in fact exactly what a mother who's standing up for her kid looks like.
As my sis made her way back to me, I started expressing my taken offense and disagreement with her actions "This is NOT okay, he saw you give that boy the other car so now he's happy he got what he wanted. Thank you for solving the problem but he won’t learn from this, he will learn that he can always have his way.”
My sis softly responded with sadness in her eyes as she pleaded with me, “Nikki, nothing is going his way in his life right now, let him have this, he feels everything gets taken away from him" I'll always remember her compassion and warmth in that moment, as she pleaded with me to try and understand where my child was coming from.
I arrogantly continued defending my stance from an ADULT perspective, “He’s not going to be a victim. There are a billion other toys here he can find something else, he needs to learn to share or he will grow up selfish! That other boy is younger than him, he knows better. I don't want him to end up like XYZ..." (as I specified people in his life who were not exactly role models).
She wouldn't back down, she remained as steadfast in her message as she was in her calm, composed delivery - "Not now...that's not as important right now. He will learn, but not now, he is already so generous. He has such a kind heart it will all come naturally. He will share once he is ready. I know you want him to care about the boy but we also have to value Kalev, he doesn't want another ride-on, he wants the one he has. He wants to be able to have control over something and KEEP something, he’s already lost so much…”
I just stood there, shaking my head. I couldn’t grasp what she was saying. Manners were critical when I was growing up, many times it seemed like the only thing that mattered. Expectations were high in my culture.
She continued…“My child is more important than what other parents may think or what another child wants, my child comes first, I want my child to feel valued, that another child is not more important than her (her daughter). Let him have this.”
I had acquiesced by now. She could tell I was still stressed, she just stood by my side for a couple minutes, in silence as we watched our kids play. She put her hand on my back and smiled at me as she stepped away to check on our kids. I continued watching from afar, feeling grateful for her comfort but also more lost, insecure and helpless than ever. It was all too much, too confusing, I thought I was a good mom who had this thing figured out.
It actually didn't hit me until later in the evening when I was sitting on the bed, tucking my son’s hair behind his ears as he slept peacefully. My sis' voice kept echoing in my mind "once he is ready...he needs to value himself too…”. Once it registered, it really sank in hard. My throat suddenly felt dry and I felt as if I had just been hit in the stomach. All the countless moments I had yanked a toy from his grip and scolded him flashed before my eyes, and tears started rolling down my face as I whispered apologies to my son.
Finishing his turn on that ride-on meant more than I had the capacity to understand until that very moment. It meant his needs matter, that HE matters. Having a sense of self-worth means that you value yourself, knowing that you are worthy and that you have needs. The fact that he was nervous and dragging it with him in the playhouses was representative of the lack of trust he had with my/strangers’ being able to respect his needs, to respect him as a person. He had no security and was used to having things taken away. Not only because he had recently lost people in his life, but also because I had put sharing, manners, caring for others at the forefront ahead of my son’s own basic needs and sense of self-worth, for years. If he didn’t grip that car with all his might and refused to comply, he would’ve lost that too.
It was a tough night. It became clear that my focus had been more on how I was raising my son as opposed to how I was treating him. I had honed in on "raising him right" rather than honing in on compassion and empathy - what he was truly in need of, and deserved, everyday, but now more than ever. While I felt awful about coming so close to subjecting my son to more pain than he was already in, I felt a huge sense of relief and gratitude that my sis was there for my son when I was not in the capacity to be.
Oh how unready I was to receive this message when my sis tried to relay it. She never lectures, her nature is so gentle, loving and kind. She always comes from a place of compassion and sharing her own experiences. Any of her wise teachings, whether it's her intention to teach or not, are executed in ninja form, so quiet and calm in delivery - you won't even know what hit you.
I'd say my heart also hadn't softened enough to immediately receive her message. Even though I had made the conscious shift to positive/gentle parenting a few years back, after taking personal growth classes and discovering meditation, I was still only beginning to change my tiger mama stripes. That harsh, uncompromising, tough mama was still in me and it was critical I continued to raise my son "right" despite the tough times we were facing. "Right" meant manners, it meant generosity, it meant being a decent person! I was doing the right thing, only…I wasn't.
Life always finds ways to remind me that I will never have “this thing” figured out - none of us will, there’s always more to learn, more ways to grow. Even as I write this now, it's hard to swallow the amount of pressure I now realize I was putting on my 5 year old. Not only was he just a child, but he had also been through more than other children. How ironic that the reality of it all was that I was the selfish one, to relentlessly impose on my child the necessity of shoving his needs aside for a stranger.
It’s clear now that I never want my child to comply because he’s been belittled, shamed or made to feel so small and unimportant, compared to the person I’m forcing him to give up his turn for. I want my child to comply because his heart is full of love and trust, that his own cup matters, and that he feels whole.
I'm inclined to believe that deep down, we all want that for our children.
WON’T THEY GROW UP TO BE SELFISH & EGOTISTICAL?
If you take away one thing from my ordeal, let it be that children need to learn they are the most important person in their life. That there is value in giving children the opportunity to meet their own needs first before considering that of others.
It is not selfish, and studies actually show that continually forcing kids to share can make them selfish because they develop anxiety and fear over losing things so they hold onto things tighter. Having security will organically produce a sensitivity to and awareness of others after taking care of oneself.
Putting on your airplane mask first is not selfish, it’s just taking care of yourself first to put yourself in an optimal position to support others.
SO, HOW IMPORTANT IS SHARING THEN?
It is important, but it shouldn't take precedent over a child's self-worth, so approach is everything. Forcing or even encouraging or prompting kids to share before they're ready to does NOT cultivate an authentic sense of generosity it really just teaches them to put others needs before their own.
The experts agree: child specialist, Dr. Laura Markham, says that kids need to learn to assert for themselves and this isn’t the way. The wrong approach to sharing can instead teach them the loudest cry will help get a child what they want or need and that they should interrupt whatever they're working on (because play is working to kids) to give their item to another child simply at their request.
I also want to clarify that my son's specific scenario was unique as he was going through a traumatic time, so yes, my sis got another toy for the other child as a solution to an eccentric situation to both calm me down and help support my son. But the message around forced sharing is the same - it's best for the child to share once they are ready. In a typical scenario it may just be a few minutes, 10 minutes or longer. In this particular scenario my son was just not ready, period. And for any kids in the same situation, that's OK. Experts actually say the length of time could be an indicator; if their turn is quite long it could mean they are not feeling as secure as another child who is happily and willingly able to finish their turn in a reasonable amount of time.
It's never about letting kids just do whatever they want. It's all a balance and a matter of evaluating all factors. If a child is not facing or recovering from anything traumatic, it's perfectly healthy to guide them on the path to sharing (see below). If a child IS dealing with something, as my sis clearly pointed out, sometimes there are more important things than lessons and manners. We've all got to pick our battles, and priorities.
These days, my son is in a much better headspace to receive guidance on sharing. He's had time to heal and I most definitely use the below scripts on a regular basis.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Send a clear message to your child that it’s okay for them to prioritize their own needs. If you have an upcoming playdate, one easy way to send this message is to work with them to put away special toys they don’t want to share, and leave out the toys that they’re comfortable sharing.
There’s so much you can do to honor your child’s needs first, a lot of it is observation, communicating your observations, validating and guiding. Here are some things you can say:
When it’s currently their turn
Noah is looking at the toy you're playing with, or he looks interested in this toy, too…
Are you finished with your turn, bud?
Okay got it, you’re not done yet.
Will you tell Noah when you’re all done?
Did you like it when Noah took your train? You can tell him not to do that because you aren't finished yet.
When they’re waiting for their turn
I see Nico still has the train. He’s still using it.
We have to wait until Nico is done using it.
It will be your turn when he’s all done.
I know, it’s hard to wait sometimes.
You’re frustrated and want the train right now. It's okay to be frustrated.
It’s okay to be angry, but I can’t let you take the train from him.
This approach also empowers your child to find solutions rather than have you be the fixer. It’s also critical to teach your kids self-advocacy and healthy boundary setting language: “Sure, you can play/have/use it after I’m done.” If you can teach your child to say this, it's a HUGE win.
You can play with it after I'm done = My needs matter, and come first
Here’s to pushing ourselves to give more compassion and respect that our little ones need to truly thrive in life, that maybe we could’ve used more of in our own childhoods…
And may we all have someone like my sis in our lives, someone who refuses to be our YES person but rather an unwavering loyalist to basic humanity, who (without judgment) is unafraid to remind us in times when we may be lacking just that. Thank you, sis.