Knowing that I wanted to be a primary care pediatrician, I majored in Psychology with a concentration in Child Development. As part of my senior seminar, I worked as a teaching assistant in a center for toddler development– a place that provided an early education experience for children and conducted research on early development and parenting, while educating students like myself. I learned a tremendous amount from this experience and use it both in the clinic and at home. One thing that has been on my mind lately was their teaching on sharing, or more accurately, not sharing. At the time, as a childless college student, it seemed strange to not encourage sharing, but this was the mandate in the center. I thought making kids share with each other was what nursery school was all about. Instead of demanding that the toddlers share their toys, we prompted them to think about the other child’s emotions and their own. Here is a typical scenario:
Child A wants toy that Child B is already playing with.
Teacher to Child A: “I see you really want that truck. Maybe when Child B is done with it he will give you a turn.”
Teacher to Child B: “Child A really wants to use that truck. When you are done with it, you can give him a turn.”
Teacher to Child A again: “It’s really hard to wait for that truck. If you want to use it, you can ask.”
Teacher to Child B again: “Child A looks sad and is waiting for his turn. You don’t have to give it to Child A if you aren’t ready yet, but when you are, he would like to use it next.”
This would go on and on until Child B is ready to give up the truck and willingly shares with Child A, then the teacher would highlight how Child B made Child A happy by giving him a turn. It seemed awkward to advocate against sharing and campaigning for both sides, but it makes sense when you think about it in an adult context. If I was using my laptop and someone else wanted it, I wouldn’t be expected to surrender it in the middle of typing. I may however decide to give it away after finishing my turn. This may happen sooner if I feel empathy toward the person who wants it and their situation. Being told that I must give up one of my possessions though doesn’t make me want to do it any faster or easier.
There have been a number of research studies on this topic and some good articles in the popular press as well. Some of my recent favorite light reads are:
I’ve been thinking about my toddler center sharing experiences recently because we have had some sharing issues at the park. Each night, N goes to our local park, sometimes bringing along one of his trucks, his bike, or both. Many of the other kids at the playground also bring along toys and typically he wants to trade with them as soon as he arrives there (new toys are always more exciting). When both children willingly want to trade, this works out well. There are many times though that N just wants to use his own toy and play independently. As another child looms nearby ogling his truck, I feel the pressure of his/her parent hovering to encourage him to share his toy. I usually try to resist though– after all, it is his toy and he is using it in his play scheme. How disruptive is it to break that and demand he surrender it just because someone else wants it? So I try to teach empathy and say things like, “___ really wants to use your truck, so when you are done with it can he have a turn?” His typical reply is “2 minutes,” which is a concept his school taught him. I’ve allowed the “2 minutes” rule to be used because it is his way of saying, “I’ll share when I’m ready.” Sometimes 2 minutes is actually 2 minutes and sometimes it means never. Another parent asked me once if I thought about using my iPhone as a timer and actually setting it to 2 minutes. I think it is less important that he understands how long units of time are and more that he comes to the conclusion to share with his friends on his own. I don’t think that a buzzer going off, ripping a toy from his hands, and then making him watch someone else enjoy playing with it will teach him empathy.
No parent wants their child to be viewed as antisocial though. Most parents at the playground think that demanding their child share with others teaches kindness, empathy, and altruism. Being the parent that doesn’t force sharing sometimes feels like I am saying, I don’t care if my kid isn’t nice to yours. What I’m really saying though is that I think there are other ways to get at the same lessons. We do have some rules though: you can’t steal a toy from someone else and if you traded/shared with someone else and they want their toy back, you have to surrender it.
I’ve seen N share on his own many times, so I know he is starting to develop this prosocial behavior. He is frequently bringing me things that he knows are mine (my water bottle or iPhone), feeds some of his snack foods to friends (even his coveted cookies), and lets other kids try out his bike (and insists they wear a helmet). I’ve seen him walk up to friends and hug them when they are crying. He is learning to identify others emotions, as I wrote about before here. I know that he is continuing to learn about his own agency in others emotional state and I try to help facilitate this.
Some of the playground parents have recently suggested a no-toy rule, that they hope would curb some of the playground drama we have had related to sharing toys. While I agree that we may have fewer squabbles and tantrums as a result, I’m not sure how I feel about it in general. So far, I haven’t taken the no-toy pledge and welcome your thoughts on this topic!