The story goes that when I was a toddler and my brother was born, I tried to throw him out of my Swing-o-matic because it was mine. I’ve heard this memory retold countless times, and rather than feeling like it’s being shared as a funny tale, the deeper meaning seemed to be, “she doesn’t like to share, and she never did.” Oh no – I thought when first hearing about my actions – other kids are born with a sharing nature, but I was the exception because I didn’t feel that generosity toward my own baby brother! What kind of a person am I?!

Lately, I’ve been reconsidering the “sharing is caring” adage, thanks to my two-and-a-half-year-old son. In the past six months since our new baby girl arrived, our son is not prone to sharing his toys with her. In fact, he keeps one eye on his toys at all times, and he seems to have a sixth sense for when she’s playing with one of them. He then instinctively beelines over and grabs the toy out of her hand. She doesn’t cry, whine, or display any outrage. In fact, in her baby way, she seems to understand and just waits for the next opportunity to get hold of a toy.

What is going on, I thought the first time I witnessed this interaction. Did my son inherit my non-sharing gene? Also, why instead of responding with the waterworks I expected, did our daughter simply concede defeat?

The first time, I automatically started to explain to my son, “You have to share with your sister…” I didn’t want him to become like my former toddler self, after all. We decided in our household, however, to buck this rule and see what happens. It can be difficult, and at times pointless, to try and drill a specific rule into a toddler. More importantly, though, we felt like a natural order was playing out in our house. Our oldest kid was defending his turf, and in the process, he was teaching our baby girl about how the world really works.

In real life, how often do you go to someone’s house, appropriate an item that they own, and expect them to be okay with it? Imagine going over to your neighbor’s house and taking their car for a joy ride without asking. You can tell your neighbor that “sharing is caring,” and they would still not be understanding of you disrespecting their turf. Similarly, even within families, it’s not customary to take people’s stuff whenever you want. Adults are not great with sharing as a general rule. For some reason, though, we expect our children to be experts at it from a very young age.

Obviously, our baby girl is just being curious and she doesn’t mean any harm or disrespect by playing with these toys, but our son still knows what is his and he wants her to understand it. If we were to give him a blanket statement like “sharing is caring,” and therefore not sharing is “bad,” then we would be doing a disservice to both him and our baby girl. He would feel like he can’t want anything purely for himself, and that if anyone wants what he has, he has to give it away without any feelings of frustration or sadness.

On the flip side, we would be teaching our baby girl that she can take from others whenever she wants and they’re not allowed to do anything about it. If people are not willing to give her what she wants, she can whine, cry, and make a fuss until they part with their treasured items.

Our son has been the little man of this house for two-and-a-half years. He’s the oldest kid and has earned that title. So now, he gets to make decisions about his stuff and when he wants to share or not. Lo and behold, without we parents being overly involved in his decision-making, we’ve seen him share toys with our girl on his own. Wow, I thought when I first saw this. Maybe I wasn’t an uncaring sister after all! Maybe I was becoming frustrated that I couldn’t take part in making decisions about my stuff. I was being made to feel like a bad person for wanting in the first place.

Sharing is caring, but so is wanting. Since oldest children in households all over the world are grabbing their toys out of their younger siblings’ paws, this behavior can’t be inherently bad as a rule. Otherwise, why would toddlers and kids do it in the first place? It’s instinctual to want, just as it is instinctual to share at certain times. If you do away with one, it’s very difficult to have the other.

Personally, through my teens, young adult years, and even now, I have to remind myself it’s okay to want things for myself. These dynamics that we’re told to play out as kids can follow us through life, causing some internal conflict. I’m hoping for my kids that they both learn how to want and share in a way that fits who they are. As parents, we can model a good balance of these behaviors as well, so that our kids can see that it’s okay to want things for yourself.

To my younger brother: It was never personal. I just wanted you to know, as maybe all older siblings naturally do, that the Swing-o-matic was mine first. It’s our birthright, after all.