I like to think that our three-year-old son is polite and kind. He says please and thank you at the dinner table, kisses my pregnant belly (his little brother) before bed and says “Owie” with genuine concern anytime you trip or bump your big toe on the coffee table.
And yet, all of these social pleasantries seem to fall by the wayside on the two-minute walk to our neighbourhood park. All it takes is a fellow toddler gently asking to use his shovel or bucket and my polite, kind little boy either panics and lashes out or erupts into tears. Inevitably, I launch into the role of turn-taking negotiator while my ego sheepishly ponders: I wonder if the toddler’s dad thinks we have raised a selfish, materialistic child?
After talking to parenting author and counsellor Alyson Schafer, I realize that expecting our son to have mastered the whole sharing thing is about as ridiculous as using these playground episodes as a measure of his manners (and my ability as a parent!)
“We are not born naturally knowing how to share,” Schafer said. “That’s something we have to be socialized and taught how to do. But there are, for sure, dos and don’ts in teaching kids how to share.”
Don’t force it
“We want it to be authentic. So when a parent forces their child to share, they might get the task done, but in essence, the child might end up feeling wronged. It’s like asking a child to apologize when they aren’t really sorry: ‘Sawry!’ Like, ‘Sure, you can have a turn.'”
Keep special toys private
Schafer says kids shouldn’t have to share everything, particularly not a prized possession like a bunny they sleep with or a special blanket that comforts them.
“I really believe that possession is nine-tenths of the law,” Schafer said.
“I have things that I don’t share…Even with adults, it’s OK for us not to share everything with every person all the time. That’s the truth. So I think the same respect needs to be afforded children.”
Beyond very special toys, Schafer says, a child shouldn’t be forced to share something that is brand new – like a birthday gift – while it’s still novel. However, if a toy is sacred, it needs to be kept in a private place, like the child’s room.
Establish ‘share zones’
Schafer says if parents establish common areas like family rooms and public spaces like the park as share zones, it helps kids prepare to share.
“A lot of people would rather be social and be with everybody else,” Schafer said.
“If that means, ‘OK, I’ll let my brother have a turn with Buzz Lightyear,’ or ‘OK, well I really want to go to the park so I guess I’m going to have to share my sand castle building kit.’ But you have to give them that out that says: if you don’t want to share it and you own it, it’s yours, then we play with that at private time.”
Schafer adds that sharing at a public place extends beyond toys. For example, if a child sits at the top of the slide, ignoring the line behind them, they either need to take their turn or be removed from the slide. If the child isn’t willing to use the park rules around sharing, they need to go home and try again another time.
Nurture a giving spirit
Schafer says there are ways to develop a child’s desire to take turns by developing their social interest, their care and concern for other people, in other ways.
“You can nurture that through any way that a child helps others. So that might be holding a door open, that might be handing out a snack, that might be not interrupting when mom and dad are talking about their dad at work. These are all ways that you care about someone else.”
I guess our three-year-old is honing his ability to take turns. Sure, he may clench his fists around his shovel and bucket at the first sign of another child at the park. But if he’s using his manners at the dinner table, taking the time to say goodnight to his unborn brother, and showing genuine concern at the first sign of pain in another person, I have hope he will ease his grip soon.