Have you ever had someone say something so impactful and profound, that it completely stops you in your tracks? For me this happened about 15 years ago, when a professor in a child development course said something that completely blew my mind. She said, “I don’t make children share.”
At the time, it was shocking—and at odds with everything I thought I knew (sharing = good). But to my professor, it wasn't that simple. Rather than make children share, her goal was to teach them how to communicate and be independent little people. It's a lesson that has stuck with me, from my time as a preschool teacher to what I do now as an early childhood development researcher specializing in preschoolers (not to mention on playdates with my own toddler). So how does it work? I’ll break it down.
Imagine this scenario. Tommy is playing with a fire truck. He has had it for 7 minutes already, and little Sally really, really wants to play with it. So, she comes up to me and says “Miss Lauren, Tommy is playing with the fire truck and I want it.” Now, in the past, I have worked in schools where the teacher would set a timer and Tommy would have until the buzzer went off to give the toy to Sally. But here’s what I started trying instead: I bend down, and get on Sally’s level, and I calmly say to her, “why don’t you ask him if you can have it when he is done?”
It seems too easy to be true, right? Like, this should not work. No way! But that is my response every time a child wants something another child has. It makes it so simple, and this one line makes such a difference. It’s made my job and life A LOT easier. As soon as I put it into practice, children stopped coming to me and arguing about toys. There was no more it's my turn, I want a turn. “Ask him if you can have it when he's done.” That’s my response. Always.
We spend so much time navigating challenging behaviors or navigating sharing, and truthfully, sometimes I think we make more out of it than it needs to be. It can be REALLY easy, but we're the ones who make it really hard. Something I say all the time is, don’t try to rationalize with irrational people. If you’re reading this, you know, toddlers and preschoolers are incredibly irrational. For the most part, they’re pretty difficult to reason with. I think that’s why this solution has worked so well for me. There's nothing wrong with having a child wait their turn. In fact, it can work to their advantage, and yours, as it can strengthen their ability to self-regulate. Besides, more often than not the other child is done and on to the next toy or activity in five minutes anyway.
Another important thing to remember is that when children are playing, they're learning the whole time. So, who am I to decide when someone's done learning from a toy? They could be playing out some really wonderful role play experience with blocks, a shopping cart, and a backpack. What if they haven't learned all that they need to learn? Think about it - how crushed would you be if someone came and said, “you only get two more minutes on your phone, and whether you're done or not, you have to give your phone to Amber.” What if you needed more than two more minutes? What if you’re not done reading an article or playing a game? That would be so frustrating, right? That’s precisely how it feels to children. This simple statement not only tells them that they need to wait their turn when they want something from another child, but they also get the same respect when they’re playing with a toy. They can use it until they’re done.
When we dictate timelines for children, it takes the very little power we allow them, away. Instead, we need to empower children to make choices for themselves. If we can't even let them decide when they're done with a toy, we aren’t setting them up for success long term. This may seem like a really small place to start, but it is so important in the grand scheme of things. Children don't get to make many decisions as it is, so we could probably let them decide when they're done playing with a toy.
That said, I do get involved when they take toys from each other. In that situation, I would make the child who took the toy return it to the person who had it first. Or if I didn't see, ask them who had it first. If Sally had it first, I would tell Tommy to give it back to her. Then I would calmly instruct him to “ask her if you can have it when she is done.” For me, this is all about teaching them to respect each other, and their play time.
This simple exercise is more than just a lesson about taking turns – it’s about empowerment, and conflict resolution and communication. We need to think about the type of people we are raising to be the next generation – like, what is the ideal adult and how do we work backwards to instill those skill sets and values? Sure, we could make all their decisions for them. But let’s be honest – who likes “that guy” as a co-worker, partner or friend later in life? I know I want my son to respect others, be kind, and most importantly be happy. Since I’ve started this simple rule in my own home and with the children I work with, there have been a lot more smiles and A LOT less tears. At the end of the day, isn’t that what matters?
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