some thoughts about sharing

Welcome to Ithaca Montessori’s blog!  We created this space to provide helpful, practical information for parents, caregivers, and other allies of children.  The topics we hope to cover will include language and situations experienced by children from about 2 years to 6 years old (because this age group corresponds to the age grouping of the children attending Ithaca Montessori).  We hope that each entry will provide some “food for thought.”  Moreover, we are all learning, and it is our hope that this blog will provoke introspection and discussion—we are happy to answer questions and take suggestions for topics for future entries.

This week we will discuss sharing.  Maybe we’ve heard it, maybe we’ve said it—the command to “share!”—that is often repeated by adults to toddlers and preschoolers.  What does it mean to “share”?  Should “sharing” even be emphasized?

Let’s look at a hypothetical scenario in a home environment.  Two children are playing near one another and Child A comes to Child B and shows a strong interest in what Child B is playing with.  Maybe Child A even tries to take the toy away from Child B.  An adult intervenes and commands Child B to “share!” the toy with Child A.  Child B resists and expresses frustration and anger over being told to share the toy with which she was happily playing.  At this point, Child A is set up to feel entitled to take the toy from Child B.  And the adult, who values follow-through, then must somehow find a way to coax/demand/bribe/encourage Child B to hand over the toy.  The situation becomes infused with a question of “who’s in control?” felt by adults and children alike, and the children are dependent upon the intervening adults to enforce “sharing.”  What if there was a different way for the adults to interact with the children?  Could different language be used?

As parents, caregivers, and allies of children, we want the children in our care to practice kindness, and “sharing” seems like an obvious demonstration of kindness.  However, what if we pause and think about the above situation from Child B’s perspective?  Imagine if, as an adult, you are doing something you love, like playing guitar or knitting or painting, and in the midst of your creative engagement with those materials, someone came up and tried to take your guitar/knitting needles/paintbrush away from you.  Not only that, but then another person actually demanded that you give that item to the person who was trying to take it from you.  How do you feel in that situation?  Frustrated?  Angry?  Powerless?

Now let’s go back to the scenario with the children.  As an adult observer, pause and watch the two children for a moment.  Do they need help to negotiate their interaction?  Toddlers often play side-by-side and may “bump” into each other, and it’s at this moment that they then see what the other one is playing with and a feeling of possessiveness emerges. (A toddler’s frequent use of the word “mine!” aptly conveys her developmental stage.  That is to say, a toddler is working hard to form her sense of Self—thinking mainly about her needs and wants.) Preschoolers are at a different developmental stage and are typically more social, and therefore, they may attempt to negotiate who gets to play with the toy.  While we observe the situation, we can ask ourselves, how well do we know the two children?  Do we trust them to navigate the interaction without being a danger to each other or destructive to the toy?  Of course, as adults, we always want to intervene if we see children hurting one another or otherwise being destructive.  But outside of that imperative, we can give them space to negotiate; and, if needed, we can offer language to empower the children to respectfully negotiate and set boundaries.  For example, instead of “sharing”, what if we suggest “taking turns” with a toy?  When Child B is finished playing with the toy, then Child A can have a turn.  The adult uses language that supports Child B’s right to freely play with the toy while also acknowledging Child A’s desire to take the toy.  “_______ is playing with that right now.  You can have a turn when she is finished.  I know it’s hard to wait.  Would you like help finding something else to play with?”

Let’s look at sharing in another way.  If you come to my house, I will share my chicken’s fresh eggs with you.  Or a clipping from one of my plants.  I will lend you a book or a sweater.  I will share my favorite coffee cup with you (hot, fresh coffee included!).  I will share with you because you are my guest and my friend.  When we think about sharing this way, we regain perspective on the kindness and hospitality that we imply when we say that word—“share!”—to children.  So as adults, we can also begin to help a child understand that when they have a friend over to play, they are, in fact, (unless the visiting child brings her own toys) sharing all of their toys with that friend.  The difference is that the sharing is happening by default but not on demand.  We can work behind the scenes, so to speak, before the visiting child arrives to explain how the hosting child is, in fact, sharing and how kind it is to share (by being hospitable).

We can also empathize with the young child who has big emotions around seeing her toys played with by another child.  In the case of a toddler or a young preschooler, maybe we help put that child’s favorite toy away for the duration of another child’s visit.  We might say something like, “I know this _____ is special to you and sometimes it’s hard to see someone else play with it.  Would you like to put it away while so-and-so visits?” In this way, we are demonstrating empathy and kindness to a child who is not developmentally ready to share a special possession.

We are all learning.  As an adult who cares for children, I can ask myself:

How am I helping this child maintain his/her right to freely play with an item?

What language do the children need to respectfully negotiate with each other?

Am I imposing “sharing” or teaching authentic sharing by demonstrating hospitality and kindness?

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