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It’s OK Not to Share

fighting over puppy

I recently wrote a post you may have seen celebrating our family’s “no homework” stance. I’m a mother and author, and I know what you might be thinking: Eee gads – now she’s against sharing, too?!

Well, not exactly. I’m all for cultivating generosity in our kids. It’s our job to help our children deepen their care and awareness of others. But the way we generally approach sharing backfires.

Here’s a typical scene involving preschoolers: One child is busily engaged with a toy when a new child comes up and wants it. A nearby adult says: “Be nice and share your toys,” or “Give Ella the pony. You’ve had it a long time.” What happens? The child is forced to give something up and her play gets interrupted. She learns that sharing feels bad. It’s the parent who’s sharing here, not the child.

Traditional sharing expects young kids to give up something the instant someone else demands. Yet we don’t do this ourselves. Imagine being on your cell phone when somebody suddenly comes up and asks for your phone or takes it from you. “I need to make a phone call,” he says. Would you get mad? As adults, we expect people to wait their turn. We might gladly lend our phone to a friend or even a stranger, but we want them to wait until we’re done. The same should apply to kids: let the child keep a toy until she’s “all done.” It’s turn-taking. It’s sharing. But the key is it’s child-directed turn-taking.

Here’s what it looks like in real life. Instead of YOU saying “Five more minutes, then it’s Ella’s turn” teach your child to say “You can have it when I’m done.” This teaches positive assertiveness. It helps kids stand up for themselves and learn to set boundaries on other kids. What a terrific life skill. How many of us as adults have trouble saying “no?” When the first child drops the toy and moves on, remind her that Ella’s waiting for a turn (a great lesson in courtesy and awareness of others). The best part of all is when the first child willingly hands over the toy—it’s a joyous moment for both kids. That’s the moment when your child experiences the rush of good feelings that comes from being kind to others. It’s true generosity. It’s a warm feeling. One she’ll want to repeat over and over – whether a parent is watching or not.

What about the waiting child? Waiting is hard, especially for impulsive 2-5 year olds, but just like assertiveness, waiting is an excellent life skill. It’s OK for the waiting child to feel frustrated, sad or angry for a time. Don’t be afraid of a few foot stompings or tears. Learning to control behavior and express intense feelings appropriately is really the main job of early childhood. Impulse control (waiting for a toy and not grabbing) is a vital part of brain development and gets stronger through practice. The more practice kids get, the better. Sharing through turn-taking provides excellent practice.

Words you can say

Positive assertiveness
– You can play with it until you’re all done.
– Are you finished with your turn? Max says he’s not done yet.
– Did you like it when he grabbed your truck? Tell him to stop!
– Say: “I’m not done. You can have it when I’m done.”
– She can have a turn. When she’s all done, you can have a turn.
– I see Bella still has the pony. She’s still using it.
– You’ll have to wait. I can’t let you take it out of her hands.

Waiting and awareness of others
– Oh, it’s so hard to wait!
– You’re so mad. You really want to play with the pony right now!
– You can be mad, but I can’t let you take the toy.
– Will you tell Max when you’re all done?
– I see you’re not using the truck any more. Go find Ben. Remember, he’s waiting for a turn.

Ack! What if she reacts by hogging toys and taking really looong turns? Read the next post about coping with long turns, waiting lists and making the transition to turn-taking.

Its OK NOT to Share

Heather Shumaker is the author of It’s OK Not to Share…And Other Renegade Rules for Raising Competent and Compassionate Kids (Tarcher/ Penguin, 2012). Sharing and long turns are just two of the 29 “renegade rules” that appear in her book. To learn more, click here.

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