"You have to share." How many times have we said this to our toddlers? How often, at the playground, over back fences, around the kitchen table, have we shared our strategies, successes and setbacks as we struggle to instill this moral precept into the next generation?

My children are a little older now, so the issue is no longer quite so acute, but whenever I'm around parents and their toddlers, the topic invariably comes up. I don't know why it took so long for a very simple question about children and sharing to pop into my mind. If children learn best by observation, by the models we offer them, what do they see about sharing? We tell them a lot, but what do we show?

I immediately started imagining adult sharing scenarios. "You've been watching that football game for ten whole minutes now; it's time for someone else to choose a channel." "Yes, I know it's your car, but you have to share; he hasn't had a turn driving it yet. You'll get another turn later." "I know you haven't finished the chapter and it may be an exciting part, but she hasn't had a chance to read the book at all." Somehow, I doubt that many of us would take kindly to such admonishments to share--yet that's what we expect of our toddlers all the time.

I think perhaps it's time to get off the moral high ground (if we have any claim to it at all), stop telling our toddlers to do the principled thing, and think freshly about what's actually going on in these situations. The common theme is that both people want the same thing at the same time. Certainly this doesn't happen only with toddlers, but they are so much more forthright than most of us in saying what they want, and less easily convinced to give it up.

If ownership is involved, we could apply adult standards and assume that ownership implies the exclusive right to use and decide about use. But, once again, we are not consistent; parents are often most insistent that the owner be the one to give up that control. And most situations are less clear. One may have had it first. One may have had less access to it. One may be louder and more forceful in expressing the want. But none of these ultimately gives one child more "right" to it than another.

So we try to have two of a favorite item around (though chances are that three children will want those two things, or a totally unexpected one will become the focus of intense wanting--and often just the fact that another child has something is enough to make it desirable). Or we make them share.

What if we focused not on the object itself (after all, how often have we seen a child win out in a sharing conflict only to abandon the thing s/he has just won?), but on the larger issues of wanting and not giving up? Knowing what you want, and wanting it passionately is a wonderful quality, one that has been squashed and trained out of many of us. And we could certainly use more people in this world who are as unwilling to give up as your normal toddler.

What if we encouraged both children to go right ahead and want the same thing, and to not give up on the possibility of getting it? I've seen it work beautifully. There are tears and storms of anger, for sure, and some children have to be encouraged to keep on wanting when the pressure to give up gets high. It is loud and messy and disruptive and requires sustained adult attention. But it's certainly more interesting than enforcing turns; real issues are being addressed. They get a chance to unload the frustrations of all the times they've wanted and not gotten, of the times they've had to give up. With adult support around issues of such substance, the thing they were fighting over pales in importance.

Perhaps one day, we adults can consistently model the complex mix of wanting, and not giving up, and being generous in offering others the scarce resources that we are passionately attached to. Until then, I'm not real comfortable with simply requiring that children be "nice" and share.