Sharing and the whole turn
Dear Kerry, Whenever my 2 Â½-year-old visits her 3-year-old cousin, they have such trouble sharing toys. It embarrasses me and I make her share with her cousin, but it often ends in tears and my sister-in-law disapproves of how possessive my daughter is. How do you teach toddlers to share? AB, Maryland
We all want our children to be nice friends and follow our values of sharing and fairness. So it is a challenge to know how best to teach them, when it is clear that they sometimes seem greedy or possessive or bossy. But that is how it looks from the grownup perspective and we may be doing the little ones an injustice to judge them so negatively.
If we think about it developmentally,2-year-olds are just learning about the boundaries of their own bodies and selves, they are just gaining control of themselves physically and starting to manage their feelings, and they are insatiably curious about the world around them. These are all positive and welcome attributes of toddlerhood. But sometimes these very things get them into trouble.
“Wow, look what that kid is playing with! If he is interested, it must be pretty nice - I want to play with it too,” might be the internal dialogue for the toddler. And then, quick as a wink, she is over there, grabbing the fascinating toy out of the other child’s hand. She isn’t being greedy, she is being curious, a quality we want to support. So what to do? First, we can put into words what the little girl’s aim is: “That toy looks so interesting. I can see why you wanted to play with it right away.” This takes the whole issue out of the territory of being mean or bad and respects the child’s impulse, even while reserving judgment about how it was put into action. We don’t want to discourage curiosity, since it is so important for later school involvement, but we do want to encourage empathic and kind social interactions. Let’s think also about the words we use. You can “share” a piece of pie, but you can’t actually cut a truck in half, so “sharing” isn’t the relevant concept - “taking turns” is what we want our children to learn. Along with that go important strengths like being able to wait, tolerating frustration, developing strategies to manage those hard feelings and so forth. Some grownups deal with such situations by deciding the outcome themselves, for instance, by making the child with the toy give it up to the newcomer who wants it, with the idea that they are encouraging generosity. Unfortunately that often backfires, with that child becoming more possessive and resentful. Other times grownups may try to please both kids, by ensuring equal time, for instance, by defining the length of the turn, using a kitchen timer or counting to decide who should play with the precious toy when. That approach, however, doesn’t teach the children how to think for themselves about the situation. And it doesn’t take into account what the child who is playing with the toy is thinking, what her game is, what it means to her - it doesn’t respect the integrity of her own play sequence. So the second part of the response involves taking the position that children’s play is important to them, both to their feelings and to their learning processes. If we can embrace that assumption, how can we respect that important set of experiences while also teaching them about the feelings and rights of others? Here’s where we come to an innovative idea that sprang from our experience in parent-toddler groups at Allen Creek Preschool in Ann Arbor. This is the idea of the “whole turn.” It is exactly what it sounds like, that is, making sure your child has a chance to have her whole turn. In order to feel real satisfaction, children, like all of us, have to finish the job. In this case, that probably means putting the dolly to bed and tucking her in with several blankets, or using every color in the box of markers in your picture. It’s hard for another child to wait. BUT, if your child knows that his whole turn will be protected when the time comes, he will be better able to wait, trusting that you will help him. Often, when children have confidence that you will not force them to stop before they have finished, they don’t have additional motives of stubbornness to make them hold on and they actually are done sooner. By supporting each child having her own whole turn, all the children in the group come to respect each other’s needs. I have seen children as young as 16 months old finish up with a toy and take it to the waiting child with a beaming face. When your sister-in-law looks disapproving, you can demonstrate to her that you will protect your nephew’s turn by gently helping your daughter wait, and then you can both enjoy the eventual handover of the toy.