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should you force your kids to share

Oakland, CA (May 2017)—Sharing among children recently became a hot topic on social media when a woman’s Facebook post about not forcing her son to share his toys at a public park went viral. Controversy raged over whether she had done the right thing. Yet many commenters expressed support for protecting the child’s right to set boundaries and say “no.”

Perhaps you agree that in this case it’s a consent issue, and that kids shouldn’t have to share toys with others they don’t know. But how do you reconcile this sentiment with the need for kids to develop empathy, kindness, and the ability to care about and collaborate with others? After all, these qualities are related to sharing—and in the very near future they will be the required skills for job security.

“…these qualities are related to sharing—and in the very near future they will be the required skills for job security.”

This is a tricky topic, say Katherine Ludwig and Ed Hess, coauthors of Humility Is the New Smart: Rethinking Human Excellence in the Smart Machine Age. They warn that automation will eliminate tens of millions of American jobs in the next decade and a half. Remaining or new kinds of jobs will require workers to excel at what smart machines and robots can’t.

This includes working in teams to creatively solve complex problems and emotionally engaging with other human beings. The underlying skills that drive those tasks are high social and emotional intelligence, humility, and an ability to cultivate trusting, compassionate relationships with others. Empathy and sharing are most definitely part of that package.

“Anyone who wants to stay employable must develop a skill set based around ‘Otherness’—a tendency to focus less on ourselves and more on other people, what we can learn from and with them, and how we can best serve them,” says Hess.

The implication is clear: The way children relate to others is of the utmost importance from the start.

And while many parents may think this means forcing kids to share, Ludwig says that in many cases, it can do more harm than good. Forced sharing may teach kids the social norm of politeness and may allow parents to keep up appearances in front of others, but it’s not the same thing as raising them to be genuinely caring people who are capable of putting the needs and interests of others ahead of their own while still being able to draw healthy boundaries.

“Forcing kids to honor social protocol is not the best way to get them to look beyond themselves and connect with others,” says Ludwig. “They need opportunities and guidance to practice Otherness until it takes root and becomes an automatic internal mindset that guides their day-to-day behaviors.”

“Forcing kids to honor social protocol is not the best way to get them to look beyond themselves and connect with others.”

Leveraging developmentally appropriate ways to teach children sharing, empathy, and kindness has benefits that far surpass parents’ desires to raise kids who are decent people. It also primes them for developing the social and emotional skills they need to have a decent career.

Parents can help their kids develop genuine Otherness skills by teaching and modeling behaviors that center around kindness, empathy, and sharing as appropriate. Keep reading for five insights to help you understand Otherness and prepare your kids to be employable adults in the Smart Machine Age.

5 Insights to Help You Understand Otherness

1. Forced sharing feels unnatural to children.

It’s fairly clear that at young ages, not only is forced sharing an ineffective way for teaching kids to look beyond themselves, but it can actually backfire and breed resentment and even more selfish tendencies.

“Try to imagine what it feels like to be a young child and have something taken from you,” says Ludwig. “Child psychology experts have long concluded that prior to about the age of five, when empathy and a sense of time start to develop, forcing young children to share their toys even with friends can be akin to asking an adult to let a stranger drive away in their new car without knowing if the stranger will bring it back.”

2. Modeling is the best way to help them learn.

“Just as writing a thank-you card is not necessarily the same as mindfully practicing gratitude, forcing kids to be polite is not the same as instilling real kindness and concern for others,” says Ludwig. “Kids learn much more from what parents do than from what parents make them do or say. Witnessing a parent’s willingness to share with neighbors, to express gratitude for others’ help, and to reach out to help strangers in need has a huge impact on whether a child develops the same kind of compassion.”

3. You can guide your children to empathy.

Understanding how not to force the sharing issue and be a good role model is powerful, but it’s insufficient without further guidance. Just because you don’t make your child share his toys with strangers doesn’t mean that the situation shouldn’t be discussed later.

“In a situation like this, you could explain to a child that while he has a right to stand up to others’ demands, he should practice empathy and consider how it might feel to see someone playing with a really fun toy in front of him at the park,” says Ludwig. “Perhaps the next time he’ll decide not to bring his tempting toys along, or he’ll be better prepared to share them with new friends.”

katherine ludwig quotes

4. Sometimes “letting go” teaches the lesson.

“Often the best way for kids to learn a valuable lesson about behavior is to allow them to experience the natural consequences of their actions,” says Ludwig. “What happens when I don’t wear a coat to the bus stop? I get cold. What happens when I don’t share my toys with friends? They don’t want to play with me anymore. If parents constantly monitor and dictate how kids should be behave, what is likely to happen when the kid is on his own? Will he share his toys without being prompted? Unlikely.

“Deep-rooted mindsets are what truly guide thinking and behaviors,” she adds. “If kids don’t get to experience the repercussions of their actions, they won’t internalize them.”

5. Kids are able to learn the difference between what they want and what they need. 

Montessori preschools have a philosophy that children need ample space and time to work while the interest and motivation strikes. Rather than interrupt the flow of a child’s synapses firing, other children wanting the same puzzle or blocks that a classmate is using are told that the item is “not available” at the moment, explains Ludwig.

“Most kids quickly learn not to disturb each other, and to wait patiently for items,” she adds. “Meanwhile, Montessori teachers gracefully guide a child who may be monopolizing a certain item for longer than necessary to work on something else. Courtesy for others is taught in many other ways, and the lesson here is that everyone gets what they need when they need it—not just because they want it.”

Kids are able to learn the difference between what they want and what they need.

“Helping your kids learn to become kind and considerate team players will make them highly valuable in the coming Smart Machine Age,” concludes Ludwig. “You can still teach them to set boundaries and stand up for themselves. Just be sure to counter those lessons by helping them learn Otherness and foster a genuine interest in helping others. This may prepare them for tomorrow’s job market better than anything else will.”

About the Authors:
Ed Hess, Professor of Business Administration and Batten Executive-in-Residence at the Darden Graduate School of Business, and Katherine Ludwig are the authors of the new book Humility Is the New Smart: Rethinking Human Excellence in the Smart Machine Age(Berrett-Koehler, 2017), which puts forth a new model called NewSmart, designed to help humans thrive alongside technology in the Smart Machine Age.

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About the Book:
Humility Is the New Smart: Rethinking Human Excellence in the Smart Machine Age(Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2017, ISBN: 978-1-626-56875-4, $27.95) is available at bookstores nationwide and from major online booksellers.

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