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There was a time when my 4-year-old could snatch toys from his 1-year-old brother without it causing a problem. We had a good run with that, but I knew the time would come when my younger boy would be just as passionate, possessive and opinionated as his brother. So it was no surprise when, a few months ago, I began spending a lot of time breaking up arguments and playing referee.

I couldn’t imagine spending the next 18 years trying to top their yelling, so I revisited the teachings of early childhood educator Magda Gerber, whose work focused on the importance of respecting and connecting with children. She advocated trusting even the littlest of people to handle their own issues and resisting the urge to interfere with their learning and playing.

On the subject of sharing, Gerber said that adults should not force children to give away items, or obsess over “who had it first.” All children go through phases of possessiveness, Gerber said, so she encouraged parents to trust that those phases are temporary and normal rather than indicators of selfishness or social ineptitude. She said adults need to realize that children’s play doesn’t always look the way we imagine it and that kids can solve many problems on their own, without constant interference. After all, those struggles are how they learn.

With this in mind, I decided to stop constantly jumping in and saying, “No, no. You must share.” I noticed I was forcing my older son to hand things over simply because his brother’s shrieks were so unpleasant. His protests made me believe that something truly unjust was going on, when sometimes he just wanted something his brother had. I gave up constantly directing and interfering, and started standing back, observing and giving my children more opportunities to problem-solve on their own.

Here are the benefits I noticed:

They learn how to negotiate. A few weeks ago, with my husband working late, I sat at the dining room table with a meal in front of me. My younger son, Asher, had the remote to the light and ceiling fan. He was fascinated by it, and proud of his ability to turn it off and on. He beamed as he pointed up, giggling. Javin, my 4-year-old, came over and said, “Hey! I wanna see that!” I was between them, but didn’t say anything. I just continued eating. I had made it clear that the new house rule is that no one has to hand over something they’re playing with just because someone else wants it. Javin went to a kitchen drawer and brought back a spoon. He said, “Here, I’ll trade you this spoon for the remote.” Asher declined. Javin started fussing and crying, but walked away. I stayed silent. After a couple moments, Asher offered the remote to Javin, not out of obligation, but because he was done with it and felt ready to share. Everyone was happy, and the problem was solved without any direction from me.

Sometimes they aren’t truly fighting, but playing. A few days ago I was in the bathroom lining my eyes with makeup as my children seemed to be arguing over a necklace. I’ve grown accustomed to fussing, so I continued with what I was doing and let them do the same. Asher came squealing into the bathroom and crouched beside the toilet with the necklace tucked between his legs so his brother couldn’t get it. Javin ran in, then they both ran out laughing and smiling. If I had jumped in when I thought they were struggling, I would have wasted my energy and robbed them of the game that came out of it.

They give more freely. Recently, I was outside with my boys, walking around and riding scooters. A mask fell out of the stroller I was pushing, and Asher asked me to put it on him. Javin wailed, “Nooooo! That’s mine!” Asher was somewhat distracted so I said, “You’re right — it’s yours. I’ll keep it safe for you,” as I tucked it back into the stroller. When Asher looked back up at me for it, I told him we could go inside and get the one that belongs to him. That’s when Javin said, “Actually, I don’t really care if he plays with it.” This type of behavior has been much more common since I stopped making them share. Maybe coercion makes kids feel powerless, and that brings about a greater need for control. When Javin knew it was his choice, he was fine with sharing.

They learn that they don’t always get what they want. On a recent evening when they were taking a bath, Asher had a rubber band that Javin wanted. Javin politely, and repeatedly, asked, “Can I please see that?” But Asher denied the request each time. Javin tried trading him two Matchbox cars for it, but still, no deal. Javin started pouting and saying that he’s never going to share his stuff with Asher again. I said, “You don’t have to share your things unless you want to. Asher doesn’t have to, either. That doesn’t make him mean. He’s just interested in it right now.” As Javin sulked, I couldn’t help but think it was good for him. Sometimes it doesn’t matter how upset we get, how nicely we ask, or how well we try to negotiate: The answer is still no. Asher played with the rubber band for a few more minutes, then handed it off to Javin. Smiles spread everywhere.

Their play is more engaged. Children who don’t worry about their things being stripped from them don’t feel the need to rush their play or look over their shoulders. They are free to immerse themselves in the moment with confidence that their ownership, projects and space will be honored.

Although not forcing my boys to share has been helpful, there are times it doesn’t work. For example, my boys love making forts out of our couch cushions. Asher likes to do it under the mantle, and Javin likes to do it on the sofa frame. In this case, they must take turns. If we go to a friend’s house and there is a slide or a pogo stick, it too must be shared. In our home, Javin has toys that were given specifically to him, and Asher has his own, as well. Although their ownership is respected, some things belong to everyone, such as the swing and the soccer ball. Other things belong to no one in particular, such as a super exciting empty water bottle and those intriguing rubber bands. In those cases, whoever is actively engaged with it has the right to use it until he’s done.

It’s just as important for children to know they don’t have to give something away just because someone else wants it, as it is for others to know they won’t receive something simply because they desire it. It gives our kids practice in saying no, and teaches them that it’s not mean, but honest. Similarly, we should grant them the joy that comes from giving from their hearts, rather than from a sense of obligation. When my boys pass things to one another, the giver is just as delighted as the receiver, because there is happiness in each role.

An added bonus: Since I’ve stopped forcing my kids to share, my life has also become easier because I’m not the only problem-solver in the house. When I used to constantly intervene and direct them, they relied on me to do so. Now that I’ve taken a step back, they leave me out of their issues and work things out on their own. My children feel respected and empowered, and their need to cling to things has decreased. The struggles haven’t gone away completely, but when they do disagree, they are learning to be creative, respectful and patient.

Amanda Elder is a freelance writer and mom of two based in Orlando. Find her on Twitter @stayathomePanda.

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