Children don’t always share. And I’m sure we’ve all seen parents turn themselves inside out trying to get their children to share: some bribe; some punish; some reason. A Childish Parent (The Childish Parent ) might even buy two or three identical versions of the same toy, to avoid arguments. Sharing is another instance of society interfering with biology: it’s not easy to share, and there’s a reason. Possession involves the very primitive parts of our brain: the bits which deal with fear, fighting, food and …sex. These bits are similar to crocodiles. (Whether those bits came from God or evolution – they are there.) We are born with these bits of our brain – the other bits, the kind-sharing-caring bits only develop later.
Until some stage between the age of three years and the age of five years, children are not able to conceptualise what sharing truly means. That’s a huge age range, and the more children have been encouraged to be independent and brave the more likely they will fit at the four/five-year end of the spectrum. Toddlers are naturally egocentric: they’re meant to be.
The Butterfly, now 17 months, has one of those toys that you bang in the wooden pegs on one side, and then turn it over and bang those same pegs back again. And again, and again: ad nauseam. He loves it. His brothers, nine and almost six, have decided that it’s a pretty cool toy too: it makes lots of noise and you get to bash something. As possession is instinctive and sharing is learned, the Butterfly does sometimes scream if one of his brothers is using it. But we don’t insist on him sharing. What we have done instead, is used the concept of taking turns. Now to you and I the difference seems minimal, but to a child the difference is huge. Taking turns means that they will get the thing back again. With sharing, which is an abstract concept, the implications are too vague. Also, we are happy to put very special or new toys away when our children are pre-schoolers, and friends are coming around. The older children get a few months exclusive access to things they have been given, then their things are expected to be shared without any fuss. (It works.)
The reason sharing is difficult is set in our biology: Mum’s the word. The World Health Organisation recommends a three to five-year gap between births within a family, yes even in the west. Proper attachment takes around three years. Children want to ‘possess’ their mothers until then. Breastfeeding tends to last longer with a larger gap, and there is far less jealousy or regression for a well attached older sibling (not all older siblings are well attached, of course), and it’s better for the mother’s health too. Pregnancy and breastfeeding are hard work. They are meant to be. We’re growing a whole new person in a parasitic kind of way.
Now, I’m not about to debate the age gaps people chose between children. There are many factors and many reasons why people have their children closer or further apart in age. And I know lots of families for whom different spacing has worked fine. But for people who are thinking of having another child consider this: the current fashionable 18 month – two-year gap began during the days when wealthy women were treated as breeding factories in order to increase the family wealth through marriage, with no thought to what was best for mother and children. From the end of the Middle Ages, wealthy women often had 12 or more children, sometimes many more (a bit like cows, really), while the peasants had six or thereabouts over the same time period. Which makes child spacing a feminist issue.
Our own larger gaps happened as much by circumstance as by choice: I lost a baby between the Hare and the Owl, so have a three-year and three-month gap there; the Owl is intensely sensitive and literally clung to me for three years, I’m an older mother, and I breastfed and breastfed and breastfed – I was exhausted on every level, so we waited even longer to have the Butterfly… a four-year, four-month gap there. (With not a ripple of jealousy from the Owl despite dire warnings that he had been ‘loved too much’.) The Butterfly is the end of the line, but is already showing some understanding how taking turns works: he insists that we ALL have regular hits with his cool banging toy. Lucky me.
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