Do we? As upstanding citizens and caring humans, most of us feel compelled by empathy to help others who don’t have what they need. We offer our money to organizations that provide supplies and services. We offer our time volunteering to feed people. We value the act of giving freely of ourselves, so… we turn around and teach our kids to share through force? Wait a minute. What is the message we’re sending versus the message we’re intending to send?
If you look up the word “sharing,” you’ll see definitions that involve portioning and joint use of an item. When we tell our children to share a toy, unless both children are playing with a toy at the same time, they are cannot share the toy. We share food when we split it among our family members. We share a couch when we sit together to watch a movie. Sharing is an essential exercise we all must do to survive. We teach our children to share of themselves when we model intentional generosity. It takes very little effort to teach children how to share if we are willing to orient ourselves toward inclusion and restoration. They witness sharing when we leave tips for people who provide us a service. They see it when we move to make room for someone on a bus. They recognize it when a community comes together to set aside land to build homes for people who have none. Sharing is an invitation and a kindness. And, for many of us, sharing is a fundamental component of social justice. When we don’t share, people suffer. In some cases, we have to enact laws to mitigate the harm caused by people who refuse to share, particularly when that refusal is based on unjust discrimination.
Many of us say we want our children to learn to share when what we really mean is that we want them to learn to take turns with other children. Turn-taking is tough! It’s not something that comes naturally to a small child. Yet, we can find ourselves pushing a child too hard to do something that they are not developmentally able to accomplish within the strict confines of our directives. And, there is a significant cost to coercing a child into an action. In 2014, the multidisciplinary journal of Development and Psychopathology published an article that looked at the links between early coercion and later behavioral problems. The researchers followed an ethnically diverse sample of 731 children from ages 2-5 to discover the effect of their parents’ methods in enforcing discipline. What they found was that coercive interactions between caregivers and children amplified the children’s noncompliance and escalated both oppositional and aggressive behavior even into later childhood. Meaning, when we coerce our children, we effectively encourage them to resist rather than to cooperate. So, what do we do instead?
In my house, one of our cherished guidelines is receiving consent. My children (currently 4 and 2) understand, through modeling, that we don’t snatch items away from each other. Adults and children alike enjoy the security of knowing that their claim to an item will be honored to the extent possible. Here’s how Peaceful Dad and I make it happen.
When one child receives a gift, we encourage that child to store the gift away from main areas if they don’t want their sibling or other children playing with it. When they’re ready to enter it into circulation, since new toys do lose their luster over time, turn-taking guidelines will apply.
Whomever has possession of a toy retains possession of it for as long as they wish, with one major caveat. Turns do not last overnight. So, the next day, the other sibling will have “first dibs” on that toy should they want to play with it. A “turn” lasts as long as the child is actively playing with a toy. We don’t do toy hoarding here. One toy at a time. Once the child moves onto another toy, the toy left behind is up for grabs.
When one sibling takes an interest in a toy that the other sibling is playing with, we sportscast. “Brother, looks like Sister wants a turn when you’ve finished playing.” We also engage with the child who is waiting by empathizing, “You really want to play with that toy! After Brother’s turn, it will be your turn” and encourage the child to choose another activity. And, then we move on. The goal is to empower the children to establish boundaries and use words to indicate their intention.
There are rare times in our house that fights break out over toys. It’s always unrelated to the toy though. Our children generally choose to play together and cooperate unless something is wrong, so when we intervene, we follow our trusty Three Rs. Once the household is calm again, we sportscast, “It was Brother’s turn before. Brother, would you still like to play with the toy?” And, then everything starts again.
We’ve had a lot of wonderful experiences with turn-taking. Sharing is a little more difficult here. There’s a particular riding toy that my children try to ride together. At first, it’s adorable, but after a while, they often start pushing and shoving. When that happens, we intervene with the Three Rs and do our best to let them work it out.
Every now and then, a fight will break out that gets reactivated even after we’ve worked through the Three Rs. When this happens, we do intervene, usually by leading both children to another activity. I’ve noticed with my young kids that the cure for fights is playtime outside. I can understand how frustrating it is to be on top of each other in a small space for too long. They need a chance to stretch their legs and fill their lungs with air. We go outside at least once a day anyway, but on the more difficult days, we’ll spend extra time in nature. I admit that my patience grows short on those days and my own attitude exacerbates an already volatile situation. So, fair warning, if your kids are fighting, check yourself too.
Outside the Home
When we’re away from home, playing with other children, we respect the rules of the space. I let my kids know that we are not at home and these toys do not belong to us. I employ more redirection in these instances. For example, I might say, “Brother, looks like your friend would like a turn.” I might escalate to something like “five more minutes and let’s go find something else to play with” if my son isn’t showing signs of readiness. The younger the child, the harder this is, I’ve found. But, talking your child through the hardship helps, no matter how old they are.
I can understand that all of this may seem preposterous given what you may have witnessed in your own home, but hear me out. Encouraging consent and self-advocacy gives children tools that will last a lifetime. Helping them wait lets them know they aren’t alone and that you understand them. Giving children authority to take temporary ownership of a toy empowers the child in a world that is incredibly disempowering to children. And, you might discover what I have. When I take a step back, my kids work a lot of things out on their own. For instance, my son will negotiate for a toy! He’ll bring my daughter a toy he knows she loves in exchange for a turn with the toy she’s playing with. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. But, by and large, my kids tend toward willingly giving up their toys to their sibling, because they know the choice is completely theirs. Have faith in your kids. They may surprise you!