There are generally two schools of thought in regards to sharing, and they tend to be on opposite ends of the spectrum. One end is the belief that what’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is yours, and my kiddos don’t need to share, while the other end is the belief that everybody takes turns and everybody shares. I believe in finding a middle ground here. Over the years, I’ve worked with thousands of kiddos, and I’ve noticed some trends when it comes to sharing.
What skill sets can we build so kids have more of a desire to share and collaborate more? For example, we want to raise the kiddo who, when building something out of magnatiles and another kid expresses that he also wants to play, thinks of how he can collaborate with that kiddo, and bring him into his play. The kiddo who sees another kiddo not as a threat, but as someone who can add to their project. This collaborative skill is essential as kiddos get older and are working on group projects in school, and in the adult world when applicable to their job.
What I’ve found is that the kiddos who are engaging in this collaborative play are the kiddos who have a high level of empathy, connection, and trust.
A couple of years ago I was at the beach with two preschool-aged kiddos. One kiddo was building something in the sand when the other kiddo came up and began to swing his leg toward the structure in an attempt to kick it down. I noticed this quickly, so I caught his leg in midair and firmly said, “She is working really hard on building this. I’m not going to let you knock it down.” He looked at me a bit caught off guard, so I repeated it again, and then asked him, “Would you like to come play too?” He nodded his head and I responded, “Okay, let’s go find some more toys so you can play too.” While they were both playing, I kept a close eye to make sure he didn’t try to knock her structure down again. At one point I saw him swing his hand back, so again I grabbed it, repeated the same phrase, then told him he could play with her, and ask her how he could help, and again said, “I’m not going to let you knock it down.” Later on, when we had a moment alone together, I asked him to think about how he might feel if someone did that to him - “You know what, I wonder if you were building something and somebody came and knocked it down, I wonder how that would make you feel.” With a smile (this can trigger us a little because we perceive this facial expression as a lack of remorse, but don’t let that bother you), he said “sad.” I responded,
But I have learned, if I take a deep breath, usually I can go over and say, ‘Hey, can I play too?’ or ‘How can we do this together?’ and then it’s usually more fun for me because then we get to build something together.” I put it in the context of me as a way for us to connect on this. The next day at the beach while the little girl and I were playing in the sand, the little boy approached us, and I anticipated something similar happening as the day before, but I caught his gaze, and instead, he said, “Can I play too?” I of course said “yes” enthusiastically, then turned to the little girl and asked, “What could he do that would be helpful?” She immediately had lots of ideas, and although they didn’t agree on everything the entire time they were playing, they were collaborating and working together.
I was once working with four-year-olds in a class as a consultant. There was a group of them working on a spaceship when another kiddo asked if he could play too. One kiddo told him there was no room and that they already finished it. Out loud, in a soft calm voice, I said, “Hm, I wonder how it would feel if you wanted to play with the other kids, and you were feeling lonely, and then you were brave and asked to join and were told “no there isn’t space for you.” Notice that I didn’t say they had to include him.
I just wanted to instill a sense of empathy here, “I wonder how it would feel…” To teach them that that person has feelings and their words and actions have an effect. In response, one kiddo started building on to the spaceship, and without saying anything, the other kiddos helped, and then went and got the other kiddo and brought him back to be included in their spaceship. What I did here was build a little empathy. Catching these small moments to do so can be very powerful.
Another time I was with a couple of kiddos who were painting with watercolors, but there was only one water cup. One kiddo came over and grabbed the cup, the other kiddo tried grabbing it back, risking water going everywhere. I walked over to them calmly, carefully pried the cup out of the kiddo’s hands, and said “I”m going to hold this while we talk about it. Let’s solve this problem together.” These moments are very important “bring the calm” moments - I intentionally model the calm for them. I asked them what happened, and they both told me they had it first. I took a deep breath, and said, “Man, I don’t know how to solve this problem. It sounds like you both want the cup but there’s only one. What should we do? After some back and forth, the little dude exclaimed, “We could go inside and get another cup and then we could each have one!”
When one kiddo wants something that another kiddo has, saying “I wonder how we could do this together? I wonder what they could add to this?” is key to building the empathy needed for the desire to share. If a kiddo responds that they just want to play by themselves, I accept this as that that tiny human is having a hard emotion and is using this time alone as a way to process, so I’m not going to push. If that particular kiddo always wants to play solo and never wants to bring someone else into their play, then I begin looking at building that empathy and trust. I might say, “Are you feeling nervous that they might knock down the tower that you’re building?” Or
When the hot commodity is something that there is just one or a limited quantity of, and not something that allows for one kid to bring in another kid into the play (for example, swings), then each kiddo gets a turn for a certain amount of time. I’ve used timers, specifically sand timers, as a way to serve as a visual aid so the kiddos can see when their time is running out. This doesn’t mean there won’t be disappointment when their turn is over. You may need to emotion coach for emotion processing through this. If you need a refresher on this, Lauren and I dive deeply into this in Episode 63.
Maybe your kiddo is playing with a shovel in the sandbox and another kiddo just comes up and takes it out of his hands. Gently step right up there, and take the shovel and say, like you would if they were all kids you know, “I’m going to hold this while we talk about it. Uh, it looks like you were playing with this, and you want a turn too. What should we do?” As long as everyone is calm (if they’re not, then I will emotion coach them individually first). When I am trying to build conflict resolution skills between kiddos, the key is that I’m holding the thing they’re having conflict over. So, if your kid is in the sandbox with a stranger’s kid who takes the toy, you can still model this conflict resolution. If we just let kiddos figure it out on their own, they will, but when they do it on their own, most likely one kiddo will acquiesce, and one kiddo will become the alpha, and what I want to do is build empathy in this situation - I want them to collaboratively solve this. Our emotion processing method is called the Collaborative Emotion Processing Method - I want to raise the “includers” who wonder what strengths others can bring to the table. If a kiddo wants a turn with something that another kiddo is playing with, rather than just say, “They’re using it and you can have a turn in five minutes,” encourage them through questioning to bring something else to the table in some other way- “What can you do while you wait?” “What could you build with them?” “How could you work together?”
It’s important that our kiddos trust that we’re not going to let them take something out of somebody’s hands and that we’re not going to let someone take something out of their hands either. This is especially relevant when it comes to siblings, and when there is a decent age gap, even more so. If we consider a three-year-old and an infant as an example, it’s not uncommon for a new-on-the-move infant to crawl over and just grab a toy out of big brother’s hands. Oftentimes, since the infant isn’t old enough to “know better,” we may let this slide, but it’s never too early to not only start building this foundation for the infant but to show our older kiddo that we won’t let anyone do that and that it’s never okay for him to do that either. I’ll snag the toy back from the younger kiddo and say, “Oh, it looks like Tyler was using that; you can play with this instead.” As I said,
If the roles are reversed and the three-year-old takes a toy from the infant, I might say, “Oh, it looks like he was playing with that. Would you like to see if he’d like to trade you for something else?” If the infant doesn’t want to trade, I might say to the three-year-old, “Oh, it looks like he doesn’t want to change. What else can you play with while you’re waiting for your turn?” Remember to stay calm as you’re going through this exchange. When there is an age difference like this - a toddler and an infant - they’re not yet able to collaboratively play like they will be able to when they’re older. The focus now is to build that trust and connection for the older kiddo’s space. What about when little brother attempts to use a toy that doesn’t appear to be being used by older brother at the time? Maybe the three-year-old is playing “farm” with some of his animals, but he left some of them in the toy bin and isn’t actually playing with them at the moment, but when the infant takes the cow out of the bin, older brother snaps, “That’s mine! I’m playing with it!” Here I’ll step in and say, “Oh wow, it looks like you’re really frustrated. You were using the animals, and now he is chewing on the cow. How can I help you feel calm so we can solve this problem together?”
Feel angry, express, find our calm, and then problem-solve. If the three-year-old attempts to take the toy from the infant, I will physically move either the three-year-old or the infant and say, “Ugh, I can tell you’re still really frustrated. How can you feel calm so we can solve this problem together? I want to help you solve this. What could you do to help your body feel calm first?” If they don’t know what will help them get calm, then I offer them coping strategies. Once they’re calm, I will tell the three-year-old to pick a few of the farm animals from the bin to share with his sibling. “You have all of them and he doesn’t have any.” This is also a part of teaching them that not all of the toys in the house belong to him, the older kiddo. If a kiddo has special things that they don’t want anyone else to play with, I encourage them to keep these in their room and explain that anything in the playroom or common space is fair game for everyone to play with. Comfort mechanisms never need to be shared, however - whether a child’s comfort object is a lovey or a toy, it’s used for emotional support and therefore does not need to be shared. If a kiddo wants to play with another kiddos comfort object, I might say, “This makes them feel calm and safe. This is not for you to play with.”
When walking into a playdate, bring up the last time they let someone into their play so this is what they’re thinking about while there. Anytime your kiddo does something inclusive, really highlight and give them positive attention for it. Acknowledgment and words of affirmation go a long way. Say, “I’m so proud of you. That was so thoughtful.” Build them up when they are doing the kind thing. Don’t let all they hear from us be about the things they’re not doing. The things you acknowledge will be the things you see more of. You’ve got this and we’ve got you! Come collaborate with other folks in our village in our Facebook group Seed & Sew: Voices of Your Village.