Mine, Yours and Ours
“Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared.”
No child enters their preschool or even early elementary school years having perfected the art of sharing. As parents, we are eternally frustrated by the “this is mine” syndrome. Particularly if siblings are closer in age and have toys that are of mutual attraction, Moms can feel like they are saying, “You need to share!” multiple times throughout the day. You may have had an idyllic vision as you conceived child number two or three and thought, “When we have the next one, our children will play together and entertain one another and we’ll need to be less involved.” Only to find that you are intervening every few minutes as fights erupt. “This is mine, not yours! Moooooom, Becky’s not sharing!!!” This fighting over stuff can continue throughout the childhood years.
We want our children to be socially accepted, have friends, have a strong relationship with their siblings and act generously toward others. However, children in early pre- and school years are coming from a perspective developmentally that can, in the case of sharing, work in direct conflict with adult desires. A child is trying to assert his independence and control over his own life. In play, children are innately in touch with what skills and abilities they are working to develop. They might be mastering fine or gross motor skills. They may be coming to a greater understanding of adult interactions through toy interactions. They may be grasping rules and routines by imposing their own vision upon the “stuff” with which they are playing. Interrupting the implementation of a child’s creative vision can generate the same reaction that an artist might have when she is in the midst of executing a painting. Anger, frustration, confusion and disorientation all might emerge. And for smaller playmates or siblings, the result can be lashing out physically (biting, hitting) because they have not mastered control of their emotions and how to express them. In the book, It’s OK Not to Share, the author, Heather Schumaker, emphasizes the role of turn taking. “Keeping a toy when another child wants it is not the mark of a selfish child, but simply a busy one. Protect your child’s right to play and teach her to say, “I’m not done yet.” Schumaker suggests that adults do not have to give up a tool when they are in the middle of using it and neither should a child.
Many homes with siblings have communal toys. They accumulate over time and it seems a waste to purchase duplicates or similar toys. However, we do live in a culture in which individuals own stuff. Things are not communal for the most part. So in addition to communal toys, it is important that children have their own toy(s) that are theirs and theirs alone. There will invariably be more conflicts in households in which all toys are shared and oftentimes, less opportunity to practice altruistic sharing (a child taking the initiative himself to share) and turn taking. Children can have their own special toy that is only theirs (quality – does your child view it as special? – not quantity matters here). If they do not want to share it, then maybe they have a place they can keep it that is not on display to tantalize a younger sibling.
The rules and routines you promote around toys in your house can unwittingly contribute to conflicts. Children tend to hoard their toys when they fear they will be taken away by an adult or another child. But if they feel like their play is protected, they have the chance to be generous in their sharing habits particularly if they are taught the skills of turn taking and practice them. If a child is allowed to use a particular coveted toy until they are finished, they may move on quickly or could take entire day to play with a particular item. As children become experienced with the routine of being allowed to use their toy until they are finished and then to pass it on after they have used it, they begin to move about play without worry about holding onto their stuff. They may even get to experience joy and pride in the sharing of a toy that means a lot to them.
You can teach the skill of taking turns and allowing a child to make the choice to share when they are finished with a toy. After all, there will be times when you are not watching and you want to your child to know how to handle themselves appropriately with other children and work through those “This is mine.” moments. The following are some ideas for teaching turn taking at home to ensure your children are prepared.
Find a time for both partners or a parent and an older sibling to model taking turns. You could do it during a daily activity like dinner using the ketchup. Point to yourself and say, “My turn.” Point to the other and say, “Daddy, it’s your turn.” You could roll a ball back and forth. In our household, we rotate putting E to bed so one night, Daddy is on point and the following, Mommy. E is keenly aware of this rotation. Find multiple opportunities to model turn taking in different contexts. You may even model the frustration of needing to give something away and talking yourself through it. “Mommy wants to hang on to this cool ball but I know it will come back to me so I’ll roll it to Dad. This game is more fun when I can share the ball.”
You can give your children practice with many of the typical games they might play at home. Just be sure and articulate whose turn it is to make the practice of turn taking obvious to the child. Also, be aware that smaller children may be so focused on the present moment that when they give away their toy (even if they are going to get it back), it may seem like they are giving it away forever. Be sure that your practice includes quick turns and reminders for smaller children that the toy will come back to them. Some games include:
Play ball – take turns rolling or kicking back and forth
Hide and seek – take turns hiding and seeking
Bake – take turns pouring, measuring and stirring ingredients
Play hopscotch – take turns hopping down the numbers in chalk on your driveway or sidewalk
Run through the sprinkler – take turns running through the sprinkler in warmer weather
Play School – take turns acting as the teacher and the student alternatively
Set up a bike obstacle course – create an obstacle course with cones or sticks or rocks or outdoor toys and allow children to take turns riding their bikes around the objects one at a time
Make music – turn on music and take turns playing a favorite instrument
*Play board games (for school age only) – Board games like match games, Candyland or Chutes and Ladders can be a good way to practice turn taking with school-age children. For some preschoolers however, they can result in frustration because they are not quite ready for the rules and structure that are required with a board game so use your best judgment.
Do no harm
Bottom line, it is never okay for one child to physically hurt another child. Though it may be unjust when a child snatches a toy away, physically lashing out is not acceptable. An adult has the opportunity to step in and ask for a cool down period. Setting up a cool down safe space in the house is ideal. It may just be a soft chair or pillow with a stuffed friend designated for making a child feel better (never to be used as a punishment). Use that cool down space as a place children can self-select (sometimes with a helpful reminder from a parent) to help them calm down before working through a problem. This offers a child a chance to develop the critical skill of self-soothing. For more on this, see “Cooling the Fire.”
Look for opportunities to reinforce that children are learning to take turns. You might say, “I notice that Jordan took a turn with the piano and then stepped aside to let Addison take a turn. I am glad to see it.”
If your children are about to enter a situation in which you know they typically fight over toys, give them a reminder. “Tony, remember to take turns with your sister if she wants to play with your toys while I make dinner.”
Step back and allow your children to work out the turn taking between the two of them. If you’ve modeled and practiced the skills, they need plenty of opportunities without adult intervention to give them the chance to practice it on their own. Sometimes we step in too quickly and miss that chance. Be sure to step back and allow your children to work on it. It may not be perfect right away. But it will be satisfying when you see them working out how to play together in a constructive way.
Promoting skills in turn taking and the value of sharing in your family life can provide a sense of freedom from coveting stuff and allow for both creative play involving the tools of the trade and strengthening the relationship between siblings through parent-modeled and practiced and child-initiated sharing.