Learning to Share (Sanely)

Learning to Share (Sanely)

Parents often hear that the ability to share is key to children’s social development. And that is true; children who have better social skills do appear to do better in the long run, such as being more likely to obtain higher education. And the abilities to share space and materials do make life more pleasant.

However, some parents and teachers have also pointed out that they think it is unfair to make a child share something when she is in the middle of using it just to teach the skill. One parent blogger drew a parallel with having a stranger walk up to you while you are using your smartphone and demand to have a “turn”. She noted that most people would not just hand over their phones, and so asked why we should expect children to just hand over their toys to other children who might demand to play with them? She uses this example as a way to justify not “making” her child share.

Well, ok, we see that it would be super frustrating to anyone (adult, child, dog) to have to interrupt an ongoing activity to hand over your phone, toy, etc to someone who is rudely demanding to use it. And it would not make it likely that you would happily share your stuff again in the future. And it would not teach the person who demanded your phone anything about being polite or waiting.  But what if a stranger walked up and said “Excuse me, but my car has broken down outside and I really need to call my husband and let him know that I can’t pick up my children. Could I please use your phone after you are done with your call?” Chances are that if you learned how to share materials and space when you were a child, you would be pretty likely to let this person borrow your phone to make that call. And chances are that someone would do the same thing for you in such a situation, or any situation in which you asked nicely, did not totally interrupt the other person’s activity, and had a plausible reason. Sharing is a social skill that allows us to make life more pleasant for ourselves and others.

The same thing is true for children. Their lives are often made easier and more fun when they and their peers share. And being able to share is key to having friends! Just like adults, children are certainly more likely to share when the person asking them to share is polite, they don’t have to interrupt their activities, and they feel good about it.

So rather than waiting to teach about sharing by “making” a child share in the moment when she is in the middle of playing with a toy, a more effective approach is to prepare your child in advance by teaching her about the concept of sharing before you expect her to do it and then helping her (and other children) to share in ways that will encourage all of them to do it again in the future. Here are some tips for doing this:

  1. Talk about sharing long before your expect your child to do it. The concept of sharing can be introduced very early and there are lots of children’s books that feature sharing. You can also point out times when you share with your child or times when other family members and friends share. Hearing about and seeing others share will let your child know what it looks like and that you think it is important. You can explain that sharing is a friendly thing to do and it makes other people more likely to share with you.
  1. If your child is about to enter a situation in which he is likely to have to share, preteach your child (and others) how this will happen. If your child is about to have a play date or to go to a park where there will be other children (for example) talk to him ahead of time about what you would like him to do and how you will help with sharing. That could go something like “You are going to be playing with your friend today and he may want to share the toys that you are playing with. That means that you can play with a toy for a while and then I will let you know 5 minutes before it is time to switch with your friend (see below). When the 5 minutes is done, you can give the toy to your friend and find a new toy or you can play with your friend with the toy if he wants to do that.” You also need explain these rules to the friend so that he understands what will be happening. Waiting for a turn is a great skill to practice during these transition times and you could help your child and his friend with some suggestions about what to do like “Johnny is going to share that toy with you in 5 minutes. What could you do while you are waiting? How about finding another toy for a few minutes? You can still have your tuen when Johnny’s time is up.”
  1. Give your child (and others) transition time during sharing. It is very hard for children (and adults) to switch quickly from one activity to another. They need time to make the transition. So if you are expecting your child to share toys or materials, you need to give her a warning about what you expect and then give her a few minutes to make the transition. It will also help if, as in the example above, you give her some suggestions about what she can do after the transition happens. Or, for older children, you can ask them to make suggestions. Also for older children, parents can give them the language to make their own transitions such as “I will be finished with this in 2 minutes and then you can use it.”
  1. Plan ahead for potentially difficult situations. If you are taking your child to the park and he insists on taking his favorite bulldozer that you know also gets attention from lots of other children who may come over and ask to borrow it, have a plan for when that happens. You can talk to your child about it and tell him that other children may want a turn. Then he can decide if he is willing to let others have turns (with appropriate time for transitions) or if he’d prefer to leave it at home. If he still wants to bring the toy, you could bring a second bulldozer that your son would be happier to share or that he could play with once he is ready to share his first choice.
  1. Reward your child for sharing. Let your child know that you are proud of her when she shares. After all, we know that it is hard to share things that are important to us. Be specific about what you liked and why. So you could say “I really liked the way that your shared your crayons with Jenny. She asked you nicely and you said ok and made space for her to color. That was a very friendly thing to do! I bet that made her feel happy and she will want to color with you again!” Children like to do the right thing and when you point out that they did and that you are proud, it makes it more likely that they will share again in the future.

 These steps will not lead to sharing every time (and children do need to learn to handle disappointment when their friends won’t share) but they can help make the process more smooth and less likely to end in tears of frustration (from your child, your child’s friends, or yourself). As with all new skills, expect that it may time some time and practice for your child to get really good at this. Always feel free to demonstrate and role play. And remember that helping your child to learn to share today is likely to make him a more socially-skilled (and perhaps more successful) adult!

Image: © Brad Calkins | Dreamstime.com

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Katherine Pears
Dr. Katherine Pears is a senior scientist at Oregon Social Learning Center (OSLC). She earned her Ph.D in clinical psychology and has worked with OSLC since 1998. Katherine is the principal investigator and co-developer of the Kids In Transition to Schools (KITS) program. Currently, she oversees all the clinical and research activities for KITS. When she’s not in her office, you’ll find Katherine in the kitchen whipping up her latest creation or outdoors hiking a scenic trail.

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