"Awesome dump truck!" my son said, holding up his prize, his eyes shining with admiration. He was 21 months old, very into wheeled things. I had to admit, the truck was cool: chrome parts, a working dumper, even hinged cab doors. He and I were at the beach, where he found the truck unattended, and according to the unspoken rules of the beach, it was no foul for him to start playing with it. Ten minutes later, the truck's owner, a boy of about 4 or 5, hove into view and wrested the truck away from my son, who was stunned. I hung back; he had a fleet of his own trucks, unplayed with. But the boy's mother, following closely behind, was appalled.
"Can you let the little boy play with the truck?" she asked her son. "No," he said. Her hand was on the awesome dump truck now. My son didn't need it back, I told her, he'd played a good turn. At this point, though, she wasn't going to back down. "He needs to learn how to share," she said and twisted the awesome dump truck from her son's hands and passed it to my son. Then she walked away, leaving her son to sit in the sand and howl.
Maybe it was just one of those mornings. Maybe she felt she was protecting my son, the younger and smaller of the two. I don't know. But as I told the story to other people, it became clear that other things were in play. Someone labeled the phenomenon "the sharing police." If you're a parent, you've seen this on the playground or the local play space. Child A wants Child B's toy. Parent B gently chides Child B, "We're going to share our toys, aren't we?" One way or another, Child B loses the toy. Let me be clear: I'm not against sharing as a virtue or an important aspect of social life. But I do think parents should model it before they try to teach it. When they do, they should teach it to those who are cognitively able to grasp the concept, and to those who have a shot at negotiating the terms—and who might be able to share on their own when adults aren't around.
My dad friend, G., had a story about the sharing police with a happier ending. One day, his daughter and a boy, both 18 months old, began tussling over a shovel. The other dad wanted to intervene, but G. said, "Let them go for it. We'll see what happens." The two toddlers yanked the shovel back and forth a dozen times, then dropped it and moved on. It turned out, they'd wanted some interaction, not the shovel. Yet why had the other dad moved in so quickly? Was it just a part of the good parenting show that adults feel obliged to stage for each other? Or was it something else, as well?
I turned to a book, The Anthropology of Childhood, a powerfully panoramic view of childhood in various cultures and historical periods, written by David Lancy, an anthropologist at Utah State. He's built a massive database of anthropological descriptions and has a huge number of details at his fingertips. I asked him, what's going on with parents sticking their noses into situations to make sure that kids share? "My sense from the ethnographic literature," he wrote in an email, "is that many societies find children's 'selfish' and 'demanding' behavior unwelcome and may take explicit steps to change their behavior—even if sharing is not a conspicuous virtue." But, he added, what's even more common is ignoring a kid's tantrums or even punishing them for wanting something.
In his work, Lancy talks about two broad approaches to child-rearing, which he calls "pick when ripe" and "pick when green" models. (To see a PowerPoint presentation by Lancy, look for "Pick When Ripe" here.) In many "pick when ripe" societies, children are barely acknowledged until they're toddlers; they're just not seen as viable targets for socializing, and no explicit teaching goes on. In "pick when green" societies (such as ours), it's never too early to begin teaching them, explicitly and in earnest. (You could say that the 2010 movie Babies featured two babies from each type of society.)
Lancy suggested that the sharing police might be a manifestation of a "pick when green" mentality. "In the contemporary elite, free, unsupervised interactions with peers have been reduced, so maybe these parents feel they have to teach their kids social skills they won't otherwise pick up through more casual means," he wrote.
Not all "pick when green" societies handle things in the same way, though. In his 1991 book Preschool in Three Cultures, Joseph Tobin, an educational anthropologist at Arizona State University, described three schools in China, Japan, and the United States. In 2009, he published a follow-up, going back to the same schools 20 years later. In an email to me, he mentioned that in the Japanese school, he witnessed a group of 4-year-old girls fighting over a teddy bear, rolling around on the floor. Like my friend G., the teacher didn't step in. "Later [the teacher] explains that she sees this as pro-social, and as a form of play, reasoning that the girls don't want the bear so much as they to have the excitement of tussling over the bear," Tobin wrote.
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?"