Don't force kids to share.
Tobin circled back to my story from the beach, which I'd told him. There's so much going on in these interactions, including adults' expectations of each other and people re-experiencing things from their own childhoods, it makes for an "explosive mix," he said. "We expect parents to have some appropriate ways of dealing with the inequalities of childhood wealth when the parents can't talk about this with each other." On his first visit to China, an explicit part of Communist discourse was about de-emphasizing private property, and the stark preschool rooms had barely any toys. Twenty years later, the same school is loaded more equipment than kids could use. "They still fought over things a bit. It had become more American in that regard." Yet in resolving those issues, the Chinese teachers were more hands-off, like the Japanese ones.
At Tobin's recommendation, I contacted Jane Katch, a progressive educator at the Touchtone Community School in Grafton, Mass., who has written about the disconnect between what people impose on their kids and what they do in their lives. In one of her books, Under Deadman's Skin, she looks at what happens when schools forbid violent play, closing off the stage on which kids (and boys, in particular) process the increasing amounts of violence they see in mass media. It's easier for adults to step in and say, "No violent play," than to listen to kids talk about what the play means, or even tolerate the messiness that the learning process takes. (She was featured talking about this in the PBS documentary, Raising Cain.)
The situation on the beach is similar, she said. "The mother who wanted her 5-year-old to share the toys didn't teach her child to share. She taught him that whoever is strongest can take the toy. First of all, I think it's misguided. I think she's a nice person and wants her son to share. But instead of taking the time to think about what sharing is and what a relationship over sharing might be, it's just, 'You need to share.' I don't think that's an effective way to teach sharing."
Contemporary parents are also beset with an anxiety over not wanting their children to feel frustration, sadness, or any negative emotion. Katch, who has taught nursery school and kindergarten for more than 30 years, has seen this increase since 9/11. "The more people are worried about the world in which their kids are going to grow up," she said, "the more they've become focused on trying to protect their kids from any thing negative that might happen instead of building resilience."
Which I was willing to accept, except that back on the beach, the mom had exposed her kid to massive disappointment—all in the name, or so it seemed, of giving my kid (whom she didn't know) what he wanted. What did she get out of that?
In a way, these playground conflicts over the sharing of toys, as along with the sharing of ideas, space, and even time, are a window on the center of the American experience. How much stuff should one person have? How should we treat people with no stuff? How should we treat less powerful people?
Back to the beach: Ten minutes later, my son abandoned the dump truck, awesome as it was, for other things, and the other kid swooped in to rescue his truck. Half an hour later we bumped into him at the bottom of the slide, and my son asked for the truck. "No," the boy barked. "You took a really long turn, and I'm not going to let you have it." That seemed clear enough. I asked the boy: Where'd he get the truck? His grandma gave it to him. It's really awesome. Yes, he said, and pointed out some places where it had broken. After a couple of minutes, the boy turned to my son and offered him the awesome dump truck to him. "Here, do you want to play with this?"
Michael Erard is the author of Um…: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean. His book, Babel No More: The Search for the World's Most Extraordinary Language Learners, will be published next year.