Children are selfish. They live their little lives like we would often like to. Do what you want, when you want, how you want. Something breaks? Oh well. Decide to quit halfway through? Cool, let’s leave that for mom to finish. Want something someone else has? Grab it and RUN. Literally, run. It is our job, as boring, rule-following adults, to teach our children to tone it down a notch, basically.
When my first daughter was 18-24 months old, she really struggled with independent play. She wanted us involved in any and every activity, which was really tiring to say the least. Her go-to “play” was just to hand us everything. EVERYTHING! We made a fair amount of headway before baby sister came along, and continued to learn to play on our own. But, now as baby sister is walking around, of course she wants to get her paws on anything and everything. However; what really took me by surprise was that my oldest now wants to takeover everything my youngest has! Shouldn’t it be the other way around?! My youngest will play on her own and find her own toys, and my oldest tramples in to “play with her” with the best intentions, but ends up taking over the activity. And thus began my curiosity on how others reinforce sharing.
At first I just stuck with what I knew. We take turns. That makes sense and is fair, right? But while it seems simple to us, it really isn’t to the toddler mindset. They are giving up something that they don’t want to, not knowing when they will get it back. And in some cases sharing means not getting something back at all. When I tell my oldest to share her snack, she does so very reluctantly, understanding that this means she gets less snack (and therefore she usually starts eating much, much faster.) This seemed okay for awhile, but as my youngest grew more mobile it became less effective. How do you explain taking turns and asking for a toy when the littlest member of the family yanks a toy and runs with no intention of returning it? How do you make a 3 year old share her goldfish crackers and not expect your 1 year old to do the same? This technique left me struggling to explain “it’s because she’s a baby” and led to some confused and hurt expressions from my oldest (even though she always took it like a champ!)
Then we toured my daughter’s preschool, a cute little Montessori school a town over. I was introduced to a new ideology on sharing, and loved how simple it was. When another child is playing with a toy or activity, it is theirs for as long as they want it. Once they put the toy back it’s up for grabs again! What?! This blew my mind a little bit. I was always raised with same-time sharing in mind. Share or no one plays with it. My favorite results from this Montessori method are that they A) allow a child to fully play with an activity without having to pause their imagination and B) they learn patience. Waiting is hard, even for adults! Understanding early on that waiting is kind and a valuable life skill is amazing. This is also easier to enforce with smaller children, because they don’t have to understand when they can and can’t take a toy from another child and you don’t have to wrestle it back from them and try to explain they are sharing. No positive associations with that word right there!
My only hesitation with this method was, how do they learn to play together? If they are always waiting on a toy, WILL they play together? The answer is yes. I think that in the “waiting” and watching, the child playing with the toy first is allowed to shine and lead the playing. They create the rules for this short-term play and the second child adapts. In my experience at home, they always end up playing together, and if things start to go south the best method is distraction. Lead the other one to a new activity. My girls rarely battle over toys these days, so I think it’s a successful sharing practice! But as in most things in life, I always try to be open minded to trying new things. There is no black and white over here, we bend and stretch the rules to learn what works best for us.
So here are some tips for getting kids (age 1-3, because that’s the experience we have!) to share:
- Watch their interactions first. Every child is different. Some will be content with the dynamic struck, even if one child is doing the majority of the playing. Let them try to work it out themselves. Aka, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it! If you notice a power struggle, step in and try a few of these tips.
- Lead by example. Share your food with them. Share the TV. Share books or magazines with your spouse. Sit on the floor and play with a toy, then share it with them. Let them know you are sharing and they are doing a good job sharing with you. When they can associate good feelings of being played with to the word “share” they are more likely to want to do it on their own. They now understand this is a good action.
- Encourage clean up. Not only does this save the adults in the house a ton of time, but it’s an important life skill to learn to be organized and see things through. It also is a clear cut signal that they are done with that toy or activity and it is now available again. No more abandoned toys in the middle of the floor and screaming, “I was still playing with that!”
- Decide which toys are NOT to be shared. Whenever we have playdates we put our favorite bear and baby doll in our room. We know that those are special toys that we have decided that we do not need to share with others. Setting those aside also lets my toddler know that all other toys ARE to be shared. Between siblings, my oldest knows that toys in the living room can be shared and if she doesn’t want her sister to play with her favorite bear or baby doll then they should be left on her bed when she’s not playing with them. Personally, I believe that letting children have a special toy or two that they don’t have to share is important.
- If a battle ensues, distract. Don’t try to over-explain sharing to them. They likely will be so focused on what they want to do in that moment that you might as well be speaking Chinese. Just allow the child to continue playing with their activity, and take the other one over to a new activity.
If you have any tips for us, please share! Especially for older kids as we are swimming in new waters every single day! What’s the saying? Once you get used to it, it changes? YEP!
Thank you for reading & keep us posted on what works for you!
XOXO, Elizabeth & Kate