By Nicole Gregory
If your child has ever loudly refused to share a toy in a public place, you may have felt the urge to step in, take over and force him to do it. But don’t. You’ll only make it harder for your child to learn to share, a skill that doesn’t come easily. “Sharing is challenging. It takes a long time to learn,” says Claire Lerner, LCSW, a child development specialist with Zero to Three, a national nonprofit organization that helps parents and teachers of toddlers. “They learn it best with sensitive adults who can help them over time to manage their feelings.”
Children can begin to pick up the idea earlier than you might think. “When a baby is 8 or 9 months old and crawling, you can start to teach sharing by handing objects back and forth,” says Tim Craig, the founder and director of a nursery school in Van Nuys, Calif., and vice president of the Association of Child Development Specialists. “A baby can develop preverbal knowledge of give-and-take through this simple game: You hand the baby a ball and the baby hands it back.
Children of parents who are able and willing to practice give-and-take activities like this will have an easier time with sharing later on.” As toddlers grow, we need to provide them with the words to facilitate sharing. “In our culture, the language of sharing is not spoken enough,” says Craig. “By giving kids language of reciprocal sharing, they will be more able to wait, and more able to give up an object.” When you’re all finished, I want a turn can be taught to kids as early as 2 years, 9 months.
At about age 3, 3-1/2, they start being able to wait their turn. “With this phrase, you’re setting up the language of sharing,” Craig explains. A natural activity for practicing this language is to sit with your toddler to draw pictures— using only five colored crayons so that you and your child must take turns with them. “Implicit in this kind of sharing is that the toddler will get the crayon back,” says Craig. “And when a toddler really understands that she will get an object back, it’s much easier to share it.”
What is shared and what isn’t
At the heart of sharing is ownership, and the more dear the object, the harder it is to share. But not everything has to be shared. “I don’t think a toddler should have to share a blanket, favorite teddy bear or anything special,” says Craig. “Ever since my daughters were very little, I told them that they don’t have to share anything that’s new or special,” says Mary O’Neill, an attorney in Marina del Rey, Calif., and mother of 7-year-old twin girls and an 8-year-old daughter.
This rule is still in force at her house and keeps problems to a minimum. “Before any of them brings a friend over, I ask, ‘Is there anything you don’t want your friends to play with?’ And we put those things up in the closet. This avoids a lot of confl icts.” Parents of siblings need to set house rules about sharing early. “I try to have some areas of the living room where toys are communal property,” says Annie Lawson, an investment analyst in Somerville, Mass., and mother of two boys, ages 4 and 8. “And every car with wheels is jointly owned.
It’s up to them to work out who gets a turn with which toy,” she says, adding that each boy also has his own possessions that he doesn’t have to share with the other. Ownership at preschool could be defi ned as “it’s in my hand, so it’s mine,” says Tim Craig. Toddlers are initially appalled to learn that when they put a toy down, it’s fair open season for another child to begin playing with it. Whenever possible, Craig tries to use these emotional moments to help children come up with a solution that works for everyone, such as finding another truck, so both kids are satisfi ed. But it’s a rocky road getting to that place.
Being able to share is a sign of maturity that every parent wants for his or her child, so it can be diffi cult to overhear your child involved in a confl ict about sharing in the next room. “Sharing is a very emotional issue that gets to our core because it’s related to building lifelong friendships,” says Claire Lerner. “You just have to remind yourself that this issue can push your buttons. Don’t run in like a banshee.
Take a deep breath and remember that you need to be your child’s rock and his coach, not someone who is fraught with anxiety.” If two children are unwilling to share a train they both want, you can say, “If you can’t work this out, then that toy has to be put away,” suggests Lerner, who believes in stating a matter-of-fact consequence rather than giving a punishment. Another important key: “Very quickly—in 10 minutes, or after lunch—bring the train back and give them another chance.” If, again, they can’t share it, give them the same consequence: Put the toy away. “If they do share, say, ‘You’re doing such a good job—should we take out another train?’ Kids will fi gure, hey, this is a good thing!”
The old saying “A broken-record parent is a good parent” holds especially true when it comes to teaching children about sharing; it shouldn’t end with toddlerhood. “Every family has different values about sharing, and it’s wonderful to talk to your child about what you as a family agree to share and not share,” says Tim Craig. “Maybe you don’t share your new car, but you do share food when friends come over, or maybe you give to food drives.” If you have these talks regularly, then sharing won’t be atypical or problematic for your growing child. Nicole Gregory is a writer and editor who lives in Los Angeles with her husband, Daniel, and their 9-year-old son, Charlie.
Try these parenting tips:
Instead of . . .
Saying: “He can have the truck for 10 minutes, then you can have it for 10 minutes.” To a toddler, 10 minutes seems like 10 years.
Bring out a timer so they can both track the time. (This fascinating piece of equipment may stop all arguments!)
Telling your toddler: “I’m so happy now that you’re sharing.” It’s not about you, and your child should not see that sharing is a way to get your approval.
Say: “Good job, I see you’ve fi gured it out.”
Forcing your child to share, belittling her or saying anything like “If you don’t share, no one will want to play with you.”
Remember that learning to share is a process that takes a long time to learn. Be patient and calm as you help your child find solutions.
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN TODDLER MAGAZINE, SPRING ‘07
Smart ways to encourage good behavior.