When 5 year old Noah is asked if he likes to share his toys, he honestly answers, “No.” When probed a little further Noah explains, “My toys are cool but when I get done with them, when I get tired of them I will share.” When asked what he does if he wants a toy that another child is using, he says, “I just wait until they are done with it.”
When 2 year old Seth is asked if he likes to share his toys he says, “No, not really.” Asked why, he elusively answers, “Maybe, when I am done.” What he means is, “No way.”
Sharing is a very difficult concept for young children to grasp. Until the ages of 5 or 6 sharing makes very little sense and can be frustrating.
It is clear from the responses of both boys that sharing is not first on their agendas. However 5 year old Noah is much farther along developmentally and understands the rules of sharing far better than 2 year old Seth.
Possession of objects is the allure. Little children are often more interested in attaining the object that another child has than in playing with the item they have in front of them. Believing that they are at the center of the universe, a young child’s natural inclination is to reach over and take whatever it is that he wants.
Grabbing other people’s possessions is, of course, never okay, and parents must begin to curb this behavior early. Sharing can and must be taught starting from the time children are tiny. If parents do not start teaching sharing early, children will not be equipped to handle social situations with other children.
At a t-ball game for 3 year olds, parents watched unhappily as one child grabbed every ball that was batted into the outfield. The boy’s father, standing with the boy on the “pitchers mound,” did nothing as again and again his child rushed around in front of the other children and took the ball. This child left a wake of crying children in his path as he shoved them aside and stole the ball. The father was oblivious to the effect his child’s behavior was having on the other children and parents.
When asked about the situation, a frustrated father of another 3 year old said, “If that boy were mine, I would have been right in there keeping him in his position, it was clearly the father’s role to manage that child and teach the child to share.” This astute father’s comments are correct.
The following three actions are a progressive set of guidelines for teaching children to share. If one action fails, then move to the next:
Watch children interacting from a distance. Take an interest in how the children are playing but do not get involved. Allow the kids to do their thing without hovering. Observe with the intent to intercede should the situation call for it. Think about effective ways to talk about sharing should the children need an adult to step in.
When something comes up early in an interaction that could become destructive, parents should get involved. As soon as parents see the sign of a problem it is time to give a tip, a pointer, or guidance. In the case of the ball player, effective guidance would sound like, “Ryan, you have to stay here,” “This is your position,” “You have to cover here”, or “It is Sam’s turn, now give him a turn.”
When the situation begins to get out of control, it is time for close direction. When a child is causing problems that have consequences, such as hitting, biting or crying, parents should be right there to step in and direct the child.
In the baseball example, after at most the third time – and especially after his son tackled a child to get the ball — the father should have stopped his child from running for the balls that weren’t his. This father missed an excellent opportunity to teach his son about sharing. By not stepping in, this father taught his child that hogging the ball, and not being a team player, is acceptable. A more effective strategy for this father would have been to stress the child’s role on the team, “Stay here, this is your position. That ball is Jack’s ball to catch.” Given that his child was physically bullying other children to get the ball, he should have gently restrained his son so that the child understood that he needed to stay in his position.
By monitoring, coaching and then directing, parents allow children to demonstrate their sharing skills. Then, when needed, parents are available to step in and guide appropriately. These guidelines also keep parents from overreacting to situations, which can be very unsettling to little children.
Parents should remember that their role is teacher. They should try not to become overly embarrassed and angry when their child displays normal childhood behavior. Parents should look upon these episodes of unacceptable behavior as opportunities, what coaches call “teachable moments,” to help their child learn. Optimizing these teachable moments will, in the long run, help parents to raise kind and giving people.