“No! No! It’s mine!”
“I had it first!”
“She always gets it!”
“It’s not fair!”
Recognize this drama? Are you constantly forced into the role of referee? You aren’t alone. All parents, no matter how wise, understanding and patient, face frustrating moments trying to make young children understand the idea of sharing, taking turns and accepting limits on “yours” and “mine.”
Sharing is a learned value and a social skill every child needs in order to live happily in the world. Unfortunately, the benefits of sharing — taking turns and playing co-operatively — mean little to preschoolers, but they do begin to understand as they get older.
Selfish behavior in 2- and 3-year-olds is normal, says Renee Mosiman, a family therapist and co-author of The Smarter Preschooler: Unlocking Your Child’s Intellectual Potential (Brighter Insights; $14.95). “So, having a regular set of playmates over the years will encourage trust among friends. As your child develops that sense of trust, he will be more likely to share with others.” A child’s instinctive reaction is to hang on to his possessions, take the largest piece of whatever is being offered and hoard any interesting toys, even if he does not intend to play with them.
One reason toddlers have so much trouble sharing is that they are just beginning to see themselves as separate human beings. Coping with the problems of separation and independence takes all their emotional energy. Before they can develop respect for “yours” and “mine,” they have to develop a view of themselves as unique individuals.
Even though the maturity to share and play fair develops slowly, it’s easy to expose toddlers to the idea of sharing early and often. Just don’t expect great results. Remember that at this age, no matter how much your child’s grabby, self-centered behavior embarrasses you, it doesn’t mean you are failing as parents. When your 2-year-old jerks a doll out of her playmate’s hands, this aggression does not have the same emotional meaning as an adult taking something by force from another adult.
Ages and Stages
Teaching by example starts in infancy. Make it clear from your actions that you value fairness. Talk about what is “yours” and what is “mine” — moreover, about taking turns and sharing. With very young children, it helps to anticipate and avoid situations where the need to share will set off a temper tantrum. A favorite toy can be put away during a friend’s visit if it is too great a treasure to share. If possible, have two of some toys available. Yard sales are great places to pick up duplicate toys at reasonable prices.
One simple game that you can play with little ones to introduce the idea of taking turns is to build a block tower cooperatively. Put down the first block and say something like “Let’s build a tower. Here is MY block. Now you put YOUR block on next. Now here’s another of MY blocks. Where does YOUR next block go?” After a few rounds the child will inevitably knock the tower down, and you can start again.
By the age of 4, Mosiman says, many children understand the idea of sharing and taking turns even if they are unable to put the concept into practice. Many 4-year-olds go to preschool or group day care where the major social goals are learning to cooperate, take turns and respect each other’s property. Check with your child’s teacher to see how she handles grabbing or toy hoarding. Sometimes the school rules on sharing can be successfully invoked to keep peace at home.
“One great way to teach children about sharing is to let them sort out toys they no longer want, then give them away and share with others.”
Ways You Can Help
Food can be used to set the example of equality. When you must divide one of something, try this technique. Have one child do the dividing and let the other child choose which piece he wants first. You’ll find that the first child will quickly learn to divide the piece as evenly as possible.
Teaching children to share requires patience and more patience. Perfectly normal 5- and 6-year-olds still tend to be egocentric. They are developmentally too immature to empathize readily or to understand how their actions affect the feelings of others. This age child still needs to be reminded to share both through example and by teaching.
Children in elementary school enjoy playing board games and are old enough to understand the rules. Try introducing these kids to some of the commercial games that require sharing and cooperation as the strategy to win. One good game like this for kids 5 and older is The Squirrel Game (Ravensberger). To succeed in this game, sometimes you must give away your hoard of pine cones. If you accumulate too many, your cart will tip over and you will lose them all. Christmas (Family Pastimes), a game for ages 5 – 8, has the goal of making sure everyone has a merry holiday through sharing, giving and helping. Given as a pre-holiday gift, it can help make sure the spirit of the season is not lost to acquisitiveness.
Understand the struggle
Frustrated parents often slip into the habit of telling a child that he is “bad” for not sharing. But learning to share is hard work and this kind of criticism is destructive. Comment on the behavior, not the child. Tell your child that the way he is acting is unacceptable (but that you still love him). “I don’t like to see you grabbing the truck away from your sister” separates your opinion of the behavior from your approval of the child. Never miss an opportunity to comment positively on behavior you like. Compliments and praise often work wonders in producing cooperation.
Finally, try to give your child space to develop some sense of “mine.” No one should have to share everything all the time. There will always be a special toy or a security blanket that is too precious to share. Allowing a few things to be reserved for your child’s exclusive use will make it easier for him to accept sharing his other toys.
There are no quick and easy solutions to teaching values. Some days you will need a referee’s whistle and a judge’s wisdom to keep things under control. But by starting early and repeating the message of fairness both in words and by example, children will eventually “catch” the value of sharing.
Tish Davidson is a local mother and freelance writer who writes frequently about her experiences with raising children.