Hang around a bunch of little kids playing on any given day and it won't be long before one of those kids is admonished by the adult in charge for not sharing with his peers. It doesn't matter how many toys there are in the sandbox, in the preschool, or at the playdate — there is always one toy that every kid wants to play with. And parents and caregivers are called in as negotiators to determine some type of fair rules of play. The big question on everybody's mind: to share or not to share?

Over the years, my girls have encountered a number of group play situations — some formal and others decidedly less so. Formal playgroups tend to have explicit rules on the topic of sharing. At one weekly toddler playdate organized by the local Montessori school, no-sharing was the norm. Children were allowed to play with a book or toy until they finished with it. And other children (and their parents) were expected to respect that. At another, a timer was set whenever one child decided that she wanted to play with a toy that another child was playing with. When the timer went off, it was time to share. 

Things are different when it comes to backyard playdate politics and it depends entirely on the rules of sharing determined by the parents in attendance. Some parents force their kids to share the second another child shows interest in what they are playing with — and they expect other parents to do the same. Others attempt to negotiate between kids to come up with alternatives or compromised playtime with the desired toy. Basically, it boils down to this unspoken rule — if other parents are making their kids share, you better darned well make your kid share too, or it's likely that neither of you will be invited back for future playdates.

But is all of that forced sharing good for kids? A new consensus among some religious leaders and conservative commentators has emerged that suggests that sharing is actually bad for a child's development. The idea is that kids don't actually learn to share, they just learn to comply with the demands of more powerful individuals — namely, their parents. And sharing teaches kids that they should be allowed to have anything they want just because they want it. In addition, the thought is that sharing disrupts a child's focused attention and his ability to concentrate.

Of all the points made by the "no-sharing" league, the last one is the only one that I think holds any merit. If a child is focused on a doll or a Lego set or a drum, she should be allowed to play with it until she has figured out whatever she wanted to learn from that toy or brought whatever imaginative play she had going on to a conclusion. For some kids, that span of attention may last five minutes, while for others it may be five hours. It's OK for kids to learn that they can't have everything they want the second that they want it and that just because they asked nicely doesn't mean that the other child is required to comply. They learn they may have to be patient and wait or move on to something else. 

On the other hand, it's also OK for kids to learn how to share. As an adult, I share things with my friends and family all of the time. We borrow our neighbor's electric hedge clippers whenever we need them, and they and other neighbors borrow our truck when they need to move a sofa or pick up a load of mulch. Over the years I can think of dozens of things that I have borrowed from others — a laptop computer when mine died suddenly in the middle of a busy week, a steam cleaner for the carpet (pet mishap), books, cars, clothes — the list goes on and on. I like to live in a world where I can borrow and lend with friends and family as needed, and it's OK for my kids to learn how to do the same.

Sharing doesn't have to mean dropping the toy you are playing with instantly and handing it over to another. It could mean offering it up to a friend who may not get to play with that toy every day or letting another kid play with it this week if you played with it last week. We can teach kids to do this in a way that is not simply forced compliance, but rather empathy with their friends and playmates. Kids don't need to be forced to share, they need to be taught to respect one another, so that if a battle over a toy ensues, they can work it out without resorting to timers to adult negotiators to solve their problems.

That's real sharing, not forced compliance. It's empathy and generosity. And it reflects the kind of world I want to live in. Where we all have our toys, but when we are not using them, we share them with our friends.

Related on MNN:

Should children be taught (or forced) to share?
Some religious leaders and parenting bloggers say making kids share may harm their development.