What’s the best way to respond?
Maybe we snatch the toy away and give it back to the person who had it first. Or we try to pressure our kid into sharing. “Give the toy back to Molly or we will have to leave.” “Look how nicely Milo is sharing.” Maybe we even put the toy away so no one has it.
Unfortunately, none of these actually teach kids how to share. Instead, forcibly taking toys from kids, shaming them into giving them to others, or otherwise trying to coerce them into sharing teach kids that they have to use power over others to get what they want. These tactics generally leave kids feeling angry or sad, and even more reluctant to spontaneously share in the future.
A while ago, I came across a story about a woman who had taken her son (let’s call him Sam) to an indoor play space. He immediately found a red car to ride on, and was happily zooming around the room.
After a few minutes, another child (let’s call her Mary) asked to ride the red car. Sam said, “I’m still riding it.” Mary went up to Sam’s mom and told her that Sam wouldn’t let him ride. “He’s still riding it,” she told her.
And Sam continued to ride it for another hour-and-a-half, with Mary still waiting for a turn.
I applaud Sam’s mom for not forcing her son to share.
I also really respect the courage that it took her to not give in to the social pressure she surely must have felt from nearby parents.
But what about Mary?
Sam’s mom missed a golden opportunity to help Sam practice win-win problem solving and empathy.
What would it have looked like had she taken Mary’s hand and walked with her to ask Sam, “How can we work out a plan for sharing the car?”
Perhaps it could have ended with:
- Sam and Mary each agreeing to take 1 minute turns
- Each kid taking 5 minute turns
- Mary getting a turn, then letting Sam have it back
- Both kids riding together
- Sam agreeing to bring the truck to the climbing wall so Mary could play while she waited for her turn
- Sam helping Mary find a car, them play a chasing game together, and then switching cars so both kids would have a turn on the red one
- Sam driving the car to Mary’s mechanic shop, where Mary fixed the flat tire
These win-win solutions all protect Sam’s desire to ride while also protecting Mary’s. Sam would have an opportunity to see that his needs were equally important, neither more nor less than, others’ needs. He could have become a friend rather than a doormat or a bully.
Practical tips for teaching sharing
Opportunities to teach sharing come up naturally throughout the day. The key to making the lessons positive is to make sure that the solutions work for everyone. No losers allowed!
- Practice playing turn-taking games. “It’s my turn with the ball. I get 10 bounces, and then it’s your turn. How many bounces do you want?”
- Model generosity with your own things. Instead of saying, “Don’t touch; that’s mine,” try “Let me show you how to touch this gently.”
- Resist the urge to dictate how kids share. Ask questions, make suggestions, but leave the decisions up to the kids.
- Help the waiting child, if she needs it. “It’s so hard to wait!” “Let’s play a game while we wait.” “Sam will come find you as soon as it’s your turn.”
- Ask “How can we share this toy?” Be open to their suggestions, even if they sound strange to you. I know one child who was happy with extremely short turns (less than 30 seconds!) as long as he got to be first!
What lessons are you really teaching?
One of the most memorable “sharing incidents” I had was a few years ago. I was with two boys about 6 years old at a playground with lots of other kids. They spied a water table that they had previously used as a ladder for climbing up to the monkey bars (which were out of their reach). Unfortunately, the water table was being used as a bath for a doll.
The boys asked if they could use the water table for a few minutes, then bring it back, but the girl using it said “No!’ Even when they told her they would bring it back, she said she needed it for her baby and was going to have a long turn.
Frustrated, angry, and on the verge of losing it, the boys came back to me to complain. We quickly scanned the park, and unfortunately couldn’t find another toy that would be good for climbing up to the monkey bars. So I offered to help them negotiate.
Together, we approached the girl. “I see you are having fun washing your baby.”
“Uh-huh,” she nodded.
I explained what the boys were trying to do, and offered a few possibilities for sharing the table. Each was rejected. The boys were losing patience. So was I.
Taking a deep breath, I tried again. “How about if I help you find something else to wash your baby in?” She paused. She appeared to ponder it, then slowly nodded her head.
We walked around the park, exploring options. Eventually, she settled on a play fridge. I carried it over to the sprinklers, helped her lay it down, then watched as she filled it up with water and dunked her baby.
After a few minutes, I looked up to see her angrily marching toward me. “The bathtub leaks!”
I sighed. Part of me really wanted to be done with the whole situation, to just tell her, “Oh well, that’s how it goes sometimes.”
But the better part of me really wanted her to see that adults are helpful and can be trusted, and that sharing doesn’t mean losing out.
So I took a look at the tub. Using a piece of broken balloon and a tissue, we were able to slow the leak enough that she could give her baby a nice long bath.
When the boys had enough monkeying, they brought the water table back. She showed them how we had fixed the leak. In a few minutes, the three of them were off playing tag.
Including the tub repair, I probably spent less than a total of 10 minutes helping the kids solve their problems. But in those 10 minutes, they experienced lessons in patience, problem-solving, creativity, empathy, trust, science, emotional intelligence, and persistence.
A situation that could have ended with at least one upset child instead ended up with three happy kids who became friends.
I’d call that 10 minutes well-spent.
What’s the toughest part of sharing in your family? Do you have other strategies for sharing? Tell us in the comments.