Everybody wants their children to share with others. Sharing is caring, some like to say. But, have you ever been mortified when you see your children, or other people’s children show up to play and grab something from another child because they wanted it, only to hear screams of “it’s mine!”? What do you do? Or maybe your child is waiting for a turn on a swing and you want your child to have a fair turn so the expectation is that the child currently on the swing gives it up so the waiting child can take their turn. Maybe we say or hear the words “you need to share the swing. It’s time go get off and let your friend have a turn”. That is sharing, right? We are teaching our children what sharing is all about by asking them to hand over the thing they are using to another child, aren’t we?
So, picture this, you, an adult, are waiting in line to pay at the grocery store, and nowadays the wait can be long. As you wait, someone else comes up and gets in front of you in line, their cart has more items than yours. Do you let them? Or, you are sitting outside, enjoying tea and a good book but someone comes over to you, takes the book from your hand without asking and starts reading it because they wanted to see it. Do you let them? How would that feel to you? You are sharing, after all. I’d be willing to bet that it does not feel like sharing to you and you will tell someone that the line is behind you or that you were reading that book so they need to give it back. We have the expectation that someone else will wait their turn. That is good social etiquette. So why do we force our children to do something that we would never do ourselves as an adult?
We all want our children to have good manners and socially acceptable behaviors when they are out in the world. Sometimes there is pressure from other parents when they see someone’s child not “sharing” when another child wants a turn. No one wants to be a bad parent and to tell you the truth, it can actually be crippling when there are pressures, perceived or real, from other parents about how your child behaves. So how do we address the issue of sharing in a good way? We teach turn taking rather than sharing.
When your child has a toy and another child wants it it seems like the right thing to do to ask your child to give it up. However, this forced sharing is not real sharing. It is a fake generosity and is inauthentic. Parent/child relationships are based on trust and this kind of forced sharing can undermine that trust and actually build resentment. Forced sharing interrupts play and when a child gets into a place of entrainment, working to gain mastery, they often have to start over if the entrainment is broken. This forced sharing also implies that “no” does not really mean “no”.
Teaching children to take turns, on the other hand, builds trust as you are protecting your child’s right to play and they feel confident that you “have their back” so to speak. Waiting children are practicing delayed gratification and impulse control (sometimes with help from us) and all of those things lead to success later, socially, emotionally and academically. They are life skills. Taking turns means that “no” means “no”, these are the early lessons in consent and they do have to be clear for both children, the one who says no and the one who hears it. Taking turns helps children to understand this.
Sharing develops in stages, like all development, and the ability to show true generosity and authentic sharing does not begin to develop until the elementary school age. Authentic sharing means that children can share something without expecting something in return. So, children younger than 5 can do that sometimes but usually they share because they want something and that is ok because they are learning. They are little and are inexperienced at this “life” stuff.
When your child screams “It’s mine!” when another child comes along to take the item, what they are really saying is “I’m not done yet, I’m still using this”. They are in no way being selfish, they are simply busy and working hard in play. It is good for both children to have a turn taking dialog and initially they will need some coaching. It often looks like this: K is playing with a shovel and bucket and S comes over and tries to take it.
K: “No! It’s mine”
S: “I want to use it!”
(when adult needs to step in with guidance)
Adult: “S, it looks like K is still using the shovel and bucket”
S: “But I want to use it”
A: “You can ask K if you can be next with the shovel and bucket”
S: “K, can I be next?”
K: “Yes, when I’m done”
Only once in the 30 years that I have been working with preschoolers has the child not handed over the toy when they were done. Children know when they are done and it does feel good to them to hand it over to the waiting child, but only when they are done. Authentic sharing is built on trust and this kind of interaction builds that trust, confidence, strength and common courtesy. It teaches that the boundary of “no” will not be crossed and that feels safe to a young child. For the child who is waiting, they may need help waiting and that may look like this:
S: “I want it now”
A: “Waiting is hard. I can help you wait. We can do….. while you wait” and we may have to guide the waiting child away from the play for a bit but as we leave we can say, “K, S will be waiting over at the rocks for you to finish. Let S know when you are done.”
After we help children practice this turn taking, they will get the hang of it and be able to do it on their own. Sometimes they take a really long turn. We let them. There is something they are figuring out with that play and to interrupt it would be unfair to the child in process. We also do not set time limits on play. Time is still abstract to the young child. They really do not have a concept of time and time limits put pressure on the child. They know when they are done and they will willingly pass the toy on. And, waiting is so hard, there is no denying that. However, waiting (or withholding) is one of the greatest teaching tools.
Working with turn taking instead of forced sharing actually lets us adults relax just a little bit. When we decide who gets a turn and when with the toy we are sending the message that this thing is of such value that we have to govern it. We are telling the children that they can not be trusted with this work and we have to do it for them. The hard part is trusting that the children will learn this but I promise you that they do and it is so joyful to witness. Not only that, but the older children help the younger children to learn this skill as well and they feel so good about that. Like with all things in the realm of early childhood, we adults have to do the hard work up front but it is well worth the effort when we can trust our children are learning a valuable life skill.