Why teaching your kids to share without boundaries isn’t empowering. Make the shift to Mindful Parenting.

To give myself a mommy break and pass on the importance of friends in my 3 year-old, only-child daughter, Olivia, I occasionally plan mommy and me play dates with friends of mine who have kids around the same age. It’s great… usually. During one of these play dates, my friend’s daughter, also 3, becomes fascinated by Olivia’s favorite toys, miniature princess dolls. I’m on high alert, mentally and physically preparing. I’m scoping out the situation, just knowing Olivia is about to have a major meltdown any minute. And it happens. The scowl, the angry yelling, the tears, the storming off and I go into parent auto-pilot, spouting the typical “we have to learn to share” speech that all of us have heard before. Olivia is furious and my heart breaks for both Olivia and my friend’s daughter who has no idea what the hell just happened to make her “best friend” lose her shit. Then, despite my missed empathy, my daughter explains how angry she is that her friend is not giving Olivia the princess she wants when she wants it. I get it. She’s uncomfortable sharing her favorite toys and her mother, who has assured her will always have her back, failed her for the moment by not supporting her through boundary-setting.
Where the f*ck is the validated research that says we must teach our kids to share no matter what the cost? As a mother working to support my daughter in developing healthy boundaries and a psychotherapist supporting my clients to learn to develop security by doing the same, I don’t agree that it is necessary to teach our kids to share. I also am not saying we should teach them to be little narcissists either, but instead to set limits that they’re comfortable with. If I could’ve been the perfect Zen parent in the moment, I would’ve sat with Olivia empathizing and loving her through her righteous anger until she was ready to talk through a solution. I would’ve then supported her in telling her sweet friend something along the lines of “I am not comfortable sharing these toys. I am going to put them away for now and I am sorry I yelled at you. Let’s play with something else.”
Three year olds do not have the developmental ability to use this language that balances assertion with compassion when they’re experiencing intense emotion, like anger or fear. They need our “power” in that moment of complete acceptance and regulation to turn off the brain’s threat response. Adults are also immobilized during intense emotion unless we’ve experienced a sense of security and boundary-setting modeling in life, or we’ve done the work to teach ourselves a secure internal script. When anyone of any age does not get the acceptance and soothing response internally (if you’re an adult) or externally (if you’re 3), expect fight, flight or freeze reactivity.
Let’s imagine that you’re taking your friend (or the person you feel most powerless around) for a test drive in your new car, feeling great about sharing your excitement. He then says “Hey, you know what, this is a great car. I’m going to borrow it for the week and I’ll give you mine to drive around.” while going ahead and attempting to take the keys out of your hand as you’re shutting off the ignition. You’re probably not ok with that, but everyone’s reactions will vary depending on your internal script. In a perfect world, if you’re feeling completely secure in that moment, you’d be able to hold firmly to those keys and let him know “No I am not ok with that, but I understand your excitement about my car. I’m excited too.” Then, you talk it through. If you’re thinking “wait a second, a princess doll doesn’t compare to my new car”, you better believe that those princess dolls are Olivia’s most prized possession and her response was exactly as it should’ve been.
If you wouldn’t give your friend your car for the week feeling good about that why do we continue to teach our kids life lessons that disempower them? So is sharing bad? No, sharing is great. It is wonderful to look out for others, to share with them what we can and to have compassion. The important thing is learning when you are comfortable sharing and when you need to set a boundary. If you’re thinking, “Ok I am not sure how to know that”, it’s a good sign that you need some support in working through your boundary-setting challenges so that you can help your child shift to a secure relational style.
You can start working toward becoming a mindful parent: Try noticing yourself in auto-pilot parenting mode. What are the signs that you’ve gone there? (Remember mine? Preparing myself mentally and physically, strategizing.) Breathe in confidence and awareness, stabilizing yourself and connecting to the sense of knowing that you will be able to convey to your child that he/she is being seen and heard. Then remember, observe your responses, not attaching to those auto-pilot reactive defenses, but just noticing and connecting to internal soothing to turn off your own reactivity. Come back to your child’s expressed emotion and model good boundaries yourself. Also, find a psychotherapist who works from an attachment-focused lens and has experience in helping clients shift from unhealthy boundary patterns. Repairing our own challenges in relationships is possible and essential to help our children repair.

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