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Expectation: SHARING. Do children have to share?

Over the past few years I have had many conversations about the subject of sharing. In my mind, we are expecting children to understand about sharing far too young. I have heard complaints of “my child is not good at sharing” or “my child’s teacher is saying they don’t want to share” and when I asked the age of the child I am gobsmacked because the child is usually under the age of 3. Seriously people, especially teachers, we need to get that for the vast majority of children, they are in practice mode when it comes to sharing until they are 7 years old. Seven. Not two. Not four. Seven. When we look at it in that light we need to have some grace for our kids and for ourselves. Sharing is a learned skill, it does not come automatically. 


CHILDREN DO NOT HAVE TO SHARE

I am going to make another bold statement and say that I do not believe that children HAVE To share. It is nice when they do, and it is a great virtue to have a generous heart, but I know that as an adult I don’t have to share if I don’t want to, so why is there the expectation that children have to?

I also think that there are ultimately two concepts tied up under the one word of “sharing”. There is the allowing of someone to use my things (toys, books, etc) for a time and taking it in turns to use an object. Then there is sharing of something like food, where you give away a portion without any expectation that it will be returned. For my girls, we have broken it down into those concepts – taking turns and sharing without expectation of return. That has helped them immensely in playground or playtime situations. 


AT THE PLAYGROUND

One day I was at the playground with my girls. There were 2 swings and my girls gravitated to those. I got them up in the swings and started pushing. About 2 minutes into this a small girl (probably around age 5 or 6) came up and said it was her turn. I politely said that we had just started using the swings and we will be off in a few minutes. At that point the little girl turned to her mother and loudly shouted “Mom, they are not sharing!” and when I reiterated that we would be off in a little bit she shouted “But I was here first!”

Oh no, little girl, you were not. Her older sister was not happy with us either. I told my girls that we would swing for a couple more minutes and then get off so that someone else could have a go. I then told the little girl that we would be 2 minutes. Oh she was not happy and stormed off to her mother to proclaim for all to hear that my girls would NOT share. Her mother said nothing. I had lots of things I wanted to say. Lots of things. But I refrained. 

girl in swing
girl in swing

I have had children come up to my girls at the park and expect them to share their toys. Dear Strange Child, my girls brought their things to play with and we do not know you. I am not sorry that they do not need to share them with you – unless they really want to. I will not make them because you want it. 


STOP USING THE WORD “SHARE”

With toddlers, I feel that we need to stop using the word “share”. It is just too confusing for them. Use terms such as “take turns” or “let your friend have a go”. When it comes to food, you can say things like “if you would like your friend (or sister or brother) have some of your cake, that is up to you. That would be very nice of you to let them have some.” When they are older you can bring back the word share, but wait until they are emotionally and developmentally ready. 

THE SHARING SONGS

There are quite a few popular songs about sharing. My girls sing a couple of them, especially “Sharing is caring, sharing is fun” by CocoMelon (ABC Kids TV).   Some of them are great at introducing the concept. Some of them are over the top of our children’s heads. A good song is going to teach a concept well. My girls are 5 and they still don’t fully grasp what the songs are about, but they will sing them with gusto – especially if they think their sister has done something wrong. It’s almost humorous 😉


TEACHING SHARING STRATEGIES

It is important to teach our children about sharing, so that by the time they are seven they are no longer practicing, but fully grasping what sharing is all about. 

Take turns:

This is ultimately the first thing to teach – take turns with the toy. Most disagreements and fights among smaller children are over one toy. The calls of “it’s mine!” and shouts of “no, it’s not!”. Often, if we don’t intervene too quickly our children will work it out on their own, but if they don’t, this is where you can show them how they can take turns. “Jane, you can play with it now and in a bit you can let Max have a turn.” 

children playing with balloon
taking turns with a balloon

Put a time limit to the switch:

This goes with taking turns. I like to give a time limit to the turn. Use a timer and say “Jane, you can play with it for 5 minutes and when the timer goes off it is Max’s turn.” When the children know there is a set time limit, it makes it easier for them. There is a boundary, a defining moment that tells them when it is time to switch.

Let them put special toys away:

I am a big fan of letting my girls put their special toys away when friends come to play. This acknowledges you know those toys are special and are worthy of being protected. Often times fights come from a special toy being played with and a perceived threat or disrespect to that toy. If my girls don’t want to put their special toys away I tell them “You understand that if you do not put them away that your friends might like to play with them. Are you ok with this? Because you would have to let them have a turn and not snatch it back.” Usually they understand this…..though we still have had some break up fight moments. They are young children after all.

Model Sharing:

Our children want us to explain the world to us. There is so much for them to learn. We need to model sharing and show them how it works. This could be as easy as offering a part of your lunch, or talking through why you are doing something. 

Validate feelings:

It is important to validate our children’s feelings, and this is very true in the case of sharing. Let your children know what you see – they you see the frustration that another child wants to play with their toy, or that you saw the other child being so happy that they let them have a turn. If a toy all of sudden becomes a favorite, acknowledge that and ask if they want to put the toy away for a while so it will be safe. 

Role play:

This is especially good to do if your child is struggling with taking turns or snatching things back. Take time to show them how it can make someone feel if you let them play with the toy, or how they might feel if you snatch it back. This role play can be with your child, or between you as the parents. 

Praise and Practice:

I have heard it said that you really shouldn’t praise your children when they are sharing because it will set up an expectation of praise and not doing things spontaneously. But I leave that up to you. I don’t always praise my girls, but I do do it. Sometimes we do the “caught doing good” thing – where we suddenly reward them or praise them because we saw what they were doing. They never know when it might happen – it could be minutes between instances or days. It is also great to give your children opportunities to practice sharing and to learn the skills they need. Practice is key, because it is a skill. 


DON’T STRESS YOURSELF OUT ABOUT IT

So, let us remember that it takes until about the age of 7 for our children to truly grasp the concept of sharing. Give yourself a break Mama, allow yourself to breathe Dad. If people are looking at your askance because your child is not sharing but is only 3 years old, just remember that they are still learning and it is not a reflection on your parenting skills. It’ll come. Shake off the expectation that your children are meant to be sharing at a really young age. It isn’t worth the stress. 

If you want some help with ideas on how you can help your children practice the concepts of sharing, I would be glad to help. If you have any brilliant ideas, I would love to hear them. Most days my girls are doing great, and then there is that one day where it feels like all your tools do not work and you need a new idea to try. 

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