Should kids (and adults) be forced to share? An anarchist perspective

If you have a young child, you know that sharing is currently controversial in the parenting world. Well, not so much sharing itself, but how much parents should encourage (or force) children to share. My opinion is that the controversy comes from an odd idea many parents have about what sharing is.

When Monkey was around one year old, he would go around and take toys from other children. When I tried to get him to give the toy back, the other child’s parent would say, “No! She needs to learn how to share” and would refuse to let my son return the toy. These other children were also about a year old. Not only was this form of “sharing” developmentally inappropriate, but it didn’t make any sense. Letting someone grab something you’re using isn’t sharing, nor is it a behavior adults expect from each other. My son was in the wrong (although of course he didn’t know any better), not the child who was upset at having his toy taken away, yet his behavior was being reinforced by the other parent.

A lot of parents who oppose this type of “sharing” make the argument, “If you’re at a coffee shop and someone comes up and takes your laptop, or asks to use your laptop, you shouldn’t have to comply with that.” I agree. But this is a very capitalist way to frame the issue. You own the laptop. You’re at a private business. I’d like to demonstrate that the same conclusion can be reached using a socialist setting.

Libraries: a model for sharing

Say you’re at a public library, reading a book you just took off a shelf. You haven’t actually checked the book out. The only sense in which the book is yours is that you’re currently holding it and looking at it. Now a stranger comes up to you and takes the book out of your hands, sits down and starts reading it.

The stranger’s actions are not illegal, as they would be if you had bought the book and she drove off with it. In this case, neither of you owns the book – the library does. But the book was currently in your possession. You were using it. That gave you a certain right to the book. Taking the book away from you is both incredibly rude, and a violation of your right to continue using the book at that time.

(I think this is a misconception many people have about socialism and its anarchist variants. They hear “no private property” and think that means no possessions and no claim to anything you are using. But even if you’re living in communally owned housing with no mortgage, that doesn’t mean you have no rights over your home, or that someone can move into your spare bedroom without your permission with no repercussions from the community. Most people would not want that to happen to them and will not look kindly on someone who behaves that way.)

I’ve spent a good portion of my life in public libraries, and this scenario has never happened to me. People in public libraries don’t go around grabbing books from each other, even though they legally could. If we adults don’t behave this way even with communally shared items such as library books, why would we teach our children to behave that way? It doesn’t make any sense. It’s a perversion of the concept of sharing.

Now say this person comes up to you and politely says, “I’m interested in that book you’re reading, may I look at it?” You still have the right to say, “No, I’m reading it.” You could also respond in various other ways:

“Sure, I’m not that interested in it, actually. Here you go.”

“Sure, just give it back when you’re done. I think I’m going to check it out.”

“I think there’s another copy on the shelf over there. Hey, maybe we could both read it and then meet here next week to discuss it?”

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with making young children aware of these different options or encouraging them to play together. Of course, if a child really wants to play on his own with a toy, he should be allowed to do that. (Solitary activities are healthy, and maybe the kid is an introvert. Nothing wrong with that.) Some children are temperamentally more possessive than others. I’ve seen children Monkey’s age be very possessive regardless of their parents’ sharing philosophy. Monkey is not very possessive, because he has a pretty easygoing temperament. He will often spontaneously give things to other children; sometimes he’ll take a toy and then give it right back. Sometimes I encourage him to do this and he does so happily. If he snatches another child’s toy or cup and the child is crying and Monkey won’t voluntarily give the item back, I will take it from him and return it to the child, but this doesn’t happen very often.

Library books vs laptops

Back to my library example. Unlike using the laptop in the coffee shop, borrowing the book is not the end of the story. You take the book home and hang onto it for a couple months, try to renew it – but oh, you can’t renew it because someone else has a hold on it. Now the book is overdue. Suddenly, you no longer have the same rights over this book.

At this point, libraries handle the situation different ways. Some impose fines, an arbitrary capitalist approach that discourages low-income people from using libraries. Others simply don’t let you check out any more books until you return the one that’s overdue. You can keep the book as long as you want without fear of police or bill collectors coming after you; but in exchange, you lose your borrowing privileges, your right to use all the other books in the library. As soon as you return or replace the book, you are welcomed back into the community of borrowers.

The socialist playdate

Applying this scenario to a playdate, let’s say Monkey and his friends George and Lulu are playing in the nursery. Lulu’s playing with blocks, and when Monkey tries to take some of the blocks she gets upset. I make Monkey give the blocks back and he plays with something else.

Now Lulu has moved on and is playing with a puzzle. Monkey starts playing with the blocks, and Lulu gets upset because she still considers the blocks hers. But since Lulu isn’t actually using the blocks right now, she no longer has the right to prevent Monkey from using them. Lulu’s mom reminds her that Monkey is also allowed to play with the toys and she is playing with the puzzle right now. Lulu has a tantrum and has to be removed from the nursery play-room, losing her access to all of the toys. She comes back calmer and agrees to play with her puzzle and let Monkey play with blocks.

This is an illustration of reasonable, appropriate sharing being taught. The blocks are a community possession. As long as Lulu was playing with the blocks, she had the right to say “no” to other children who wanted to use them. But once Lulu moved on to a different toy, she did not have the right to prevent other children playing with them.

Taxation = enforced sharing?

Capitalism is different. Under capitalism, even if an individual isn’t making any use of a resource, like a house or a piece of farmland, he has the right to prevent other people from using it. Capitalism allows a few individuals to possess more resources, more money than they could possibly spend in a lifetime (unless maybe they buy a government), while many more individuals lack necessities of survival such as food, housing, and healthcare.

Since many of us have a problem with that, we have a system of taxation which redistributes some (a small portion) of that wealth in order to meet people’s basic needs (via so-called welfare programs). Tax-funded welfare programs are not socialism; they’re just an attempt to make capitalism slightly more humane. European countries with high taxes and social programs are not socialist countries, not even democratic socialist; they are capitalist countries with elements of social democracy.

Redistribution of wealth via taxes or other means is only necessary when the original distribution is unworkable and unjust. Anarchists want a society in which taxes are unnecessary.

I’m talking about taxes now because on articles and blog posts that I read online about the sharing controversy, a number of commenters brought up taxes. (So remember, I didn’t start this comparison – they did. They invited what follows.) The argument went, “Children shouldn’t be forced to share, and adults shouldn’t either, and taxing income in order to give it to poor people for food and healthcare is enforced sharing and is bad.”

The capitalist playdate

OK. Let’s apply this to the playdate. Monkey, Lulu and George go over to Susan’s house to play. Susan has rooms full of toys, including toys she hasn’t seen for at least a year and doesn’t even know she has. When Monkey, Lulu and George try to play with Susan’s toys, she says “No!” and her mother enforces it, spanking the other three children if they touch any of Susan’s toys. Monkey, Lulu and George give up on the toys but are getting quite hungry and thirsty. Susan is having a snack. When Lulu asks for a snack, Susan’s mom tells her that she needs to earn it herself by cleaning all of the bathrooms.

At this point, the three toddlers would really like to go home, but they are locked in the house and no one knows what happened to their mothers. If they ever want to eat or drink again, they have no choice but to clean the bathrooms and do whatever other forms of labor Susan’s mom imposes on them. Unfortunately, George is disabled and can’t clean the bathroom, so he can’t earn his own snack. Lulu shares her snacks with him for a while, but she finally gets so hungry she can’t keep it up, and George dies. Meanwhile Susan sits on the couch watching Daniel Tiger, surrounded by untouched toys, eating whatever she wants.

That’s what a playdate equivalent to unregulated capitalism looks like.

Now if we add in redistribution of wealth via taxation and welfare, it would look mostly the same, with this difference. Susan’s mom still won’t let Monkey, Lulu and George touch Susan’s toys, but she only makes them clean one bathroom (instead of all the bathrooms) before giving them an occasional snack and a drink. Although George is disabled and can’t clean the bathroom, he also gets a (slightly smaller) snack and drink from Susan’s mom. It’s still not a very fun playdate, but at least none of the toddlers will die in the immediate future.


In case you didn’t catch on, Susan’s mom is the government. Susan is the capitalist. If Susan’s mom leaves all the kids to their own devices, do you think Susan (who is rather entitled due to always getting her own way) will freely share her snacks with the other children? She might give them one or two on a whim. But do you think she will give them a majority of her snacks, since there are three of them and only one of her? Do you think she will give them enough to live on for year after year as they continue to live in her house (seriously, what happened to their mothers???)?

People who resent their taxes going to social welfare programs often make the argument that everyone should be free to give to charity voluntarily instead of having money taken from them by the government and passed along to people in need. There are a number of problems with this argument (one of which is that welfare programs aren’t actually charity, but I could write a whole separate post about that), but the most glaring is that most people, left to their own devices, will not consistently give enough of their income to charity to actually support all of the people who are left struggling by our capitalist economy.

(On a side note, I find it interesting that the people who make this argument are often the same ones that believe in the religious doctrine of total depravity. So … humans are totally depraved, but large numbers of them will freely and voluntarily support strangers in need – whom they view as lazy because that’s our cultural narrative – with no incentives or pressure to do so? Hmm.)

Since others are arguing that enforced sharing among toddlers is somehow connected to progressive taxation, I argue that living in a capitalist economy has made parents confused about what sharing is even supposed to be, resulting in counterproductive sharing practices.

Anyway, I know which playdate I would rather go to.


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