It all began with a baggie of pretzels.
Owen*, 6, was eating them. Ben*, 4, wanted some, too.
I took — seriously — one step toward the coffee, and behind me the living room erupted in shrieks, snarls, and a crash that reminded me why we buy our furniture “pre-disastered” on Craigslist.
No, a pair of mating raccoons had not just fallen through the ceiling onto the living room floor. My sons were trying (and failing) to share.
My kids aren’t especially selfish; our problem is that I’m inconsistent about sharing. Sometimes, I command my sons to share under threat of no dessert for a week, because dammit, I will raise good, generous men! Sometimes, I remind them that forcing a share is just an abuse of power, because dammit, I will raise good, respectful men!
But which is the right way to teach sharing to our kids, as citizens of both our family and our world? Our social, cultural, and political landscape is in the process of shifting around the ideas of power, consent, who has the right to say, “You can (or cannot) have some,” about things that belong to them, and who needs to check their entitlement regarding things that don’t actually belong to them.
Sharing feels like the modern parent’s Grand Central, the terminal where so many of the issues that plague us intersect: Are you worried about teaching consent? You’re worried about sharing. How about healthy boundaries? That’s sharing. Entitlement? Sharing. Equity and privilege? Sharing. Teaching both self-respect and community-mindedness? Yeah, babe, that’s sharing.
When I was a kid, the rules were simple: If you have enough to share, you share. If you don’t have enough to share, cut it in half, then share. Most adults I know were raised to share without question, yet most parents I know are also trying to implement a more boundary-aware and progressive “you don’t have to share” policy in their families. I’m kind of doing both, and neither that well.
Theoretically, I love the idea of teaching my sons to share the pretzels when they are ready. Practically, though, I can’t do it. The learning curve is too steep. It freaks me out. When Owen hoards the pretzels and Ben whines as if he’s been robbed of his pretzel birthright, I see a flash of my sons as pouty, neckbearded men who don’t think the new Star Wars movie should have a girl in it, and that’s not a feeling that leads me to make good choices at the bakery counter.
On the other hand, if I force Owen to give Ben pretzels “because I said so,” I teach my sons about the importance of power, not generosity. I see a flash of my sons as TV executives with buttons in their desks that lock their office doors, and that’s not a feeling that leads me to make good choices in the secret candy cabinet after the kids are asleep.
I make my kids share because I want them to learn they aren’t better than anybody, and that nobody else is better than they are. Then I spin on my heel and protect their right to say no to sharing because I want them to learn that they aren’t entitled to anyone’s personal things, and that nobody else is entitled to theirs.
I understand why they’re confused; neither lesson feels expendable, yet they feel impossible to teach side-by-side. “You must share” and “You may share” are a few letters and a world apart, each an incomplete but true tip for being a decent human being in a world that needs them, like, yesterday. And the more I watch the news, the easier it is to give vivid form to the nightmarish turd-people I could raise if I mess up sharing.
So that’s how pretzels kicked off my parenting crisis. I marched back into the living room to find Owen and Ben circling each other, each trying to get close enough to bite his brother while remaining at such a distance that he could not, himself, be bitten. Engaged in a head-bobbing dance of vicious grace, they’d totally forgotten about the baggie of pretzels on the floor.
I had no idea what to do about the pretzels. I still don’t.
All I can do is teach my sons that important things are almost always complicated and frustratingly inconsistent, but that we have to wrestle with those inconsistencies.
In the meantime, I’m buying a truly unreasonable amount of pretzels.
* Names have been changed
Katie Anthony, boy mom and jumpsuit savant, writes about feminism, family, and other f-words at KatyKatiKate.com