You can watch the video version of this post on my Facebook page.

Today we’re going to be talking about SHARING.

This has been a super hot topic both in the Posse and in other parenting groups I’ve seen. I don’t know if it’s the fact that back to school is coming down the pipe or what, but it’s showing up on my newsfeed frequently and when I’m finding myself answering the same question over and over, it’s usually a good indication that we need to chat about it!

Sharing tends to be a big parental concern because- like greetings and partings- it’s one of those times where your parenting seems to be on display. There’s a conflict between your child and another child and it always feels like the other parents are watching how you’re reacting and ranking you based on some invisible system.

So in order to talk about sharing- first we need to talk about the difference between associative and cooperative play. If you weren’t aware- there are 6 stages of play development- starting with unoccupied play at birth, and ending with cooperative play around age 5. As with all things developmental- there’s a BIG range of normal. If your child tends to be on the back end of the curve they’ll hit these stages later. If they’re on the front end of the curve they’ll hit them earlier. So you need to be aware that not all children of the same age are in the same play stage. And those parents who are going to listen to this and feel all smug and self-congratulatory because your kid is hitting their play stages early- good for you, sit down. This is not a result of some kind of superior parenting on your part or some genius on your child’s part. For those parents who are going to hear this and immediately start fretting because their child is on the back end of the curve- deep breath. You’re fine. Nobody is going to ask your child at their first job interview when they learned to play cooperatively. Your kid isn’t dumb, and you haven’t done something to fail them. S’all good.

We are going to compare associative play and cooperative play.

Associative play develops sometime between 3ish and 4ish. This is when two children are playing the same game, but they’re not really totally playing it together. Like- kids playing kitchen. They’re all using the same kitchen, they’re all making food and pretending to eat it- but they’re not doing it TOGETHER. Sari’s making cereal for her baby over here and Will is grilling steaks for his buddies over here. There’s a BIT of association going on with props and such, but it’s pretty minimal.

Cooperative play develops around 5ish to 6ish. This is when kids REALLY start to share. They’re playing the same games, using the same toys, there’s a common plot, and everybody is following it. They’re all superheroes saving the same city from the same villain and when Superman uses his Xray vision everybody recognizes it.

The best example I think I’ve ever heard of associative vs. cooperative play is imagined two kids are having a swordfight, and one kid knocks the sword out of the other’s hand and picks it up. If the children are in associative play, the one who lost his sword will go “I WAS PLAYING WITH THAT! GIVE IT BACK!” and freak out. If they’re in cooperative play the one who lost his sword will start hand to hand combat because he understands that it’s part of the game now to get his sword back. They look VERY SIMILAR but they are NOT THE SAME and this has HUGE implications for your sharing expectations! Because if your 3-year-old is just moving out of parallel play into associative play- YOUR EXPECTATION THAT THEY SHARE IS PHYSICALLY IMPOSSIBLE FOR THEM TO MEET. 2-year-olds CAN’T SHARE. 3-year-olds generally can’t share. 4-year-olds MIGHT share SOMETIMES. 5-year-olds generally will.

Next up- let’s talk about NOT SHARING.

It is okay for your children NOT TO SHARE. And not just because chances are they actually can’t. When we teach kids to “share” what generally happens is a child comes up and grabs a toy out of their hand and they scream. And all the adults go “oh now you’ve been playing with it for a while, we need to share.” NO! Can you think of any other instance where that is acceptable? If someone walked up to you and grabbed your phone out of your hand would you be like “Yeah, sure mate I’ve been on Facebook far too long, you have a go.” NO. Our children are entitled to remain in possession of what they’re using for as long as they wish to use it. They’re entitled to personal possessions. Just because they bring it out in public does not automatically make it public property.

So what SHOULD we be teaching 2/3/4/5-year-olds when it comes to sharing?

We need to introduce the concept of taking turns. NOT timed turns. We’re not pulling out the time timer and going “Okay, you get it for 5 minutes and then Lucy gets it for 5 minutes.” Nope. It can take children up to an HOUR to settle into a deep play state- and the research pretty roundly shows that if children anticipate being interrupted, they purposefully keep the play at a superficial level. That means that NEITHER child is benefiting or learning from timed turns. Your turn is as long as you have physical possession of it. Your turn ends when you put it down and abandon it. When a child grabs a toy from another, we return it and say “Omar is playing with that. You can ask him to bring it to you when he’s done with his turn.” then instruct the other child: “Omar, Nisha would like to play with the airplane. When you’re done- can you let her know? Thank you. Okay, Nisha, find something else to play with for now and Omar will let you know when he’s done with it.” Now- the 2/3 set tend to struggle with the actual alerting the other child part. But it’s still important to set that expectation. Now, if Omar goes and drops the plane and runs off with a dinosaur- you can say “Oh look Nisha, Omar seems to be done with the airplane. He left it there on the rug. Now you can use it if you want to.” Again, communicating that the item has been abandoned so it’s now open season.

Makes a LOT more sense doesn’t it? And gives them an actual conflict resolution skillset to build on and refine as they get older. Because they might not alert their friend when they’re 3 but if they hear it enough and see you modeling it enough- they will when they’re 5. Now, if you’ve got a child who is used to being forced to give up their toys arbitrarily when another child expresses interest in it or a child who tends to be the aggressor and demand toys from others- I’m warning you- hunker down for an extinction burst. It is GOING to get worse before it gets better, I guarantee you. It’s going to get WAY WORSE before it gets better. If your child tends to be the one who is being taken from, they’re going to start hoarding toys like Mattel declared bankruptcy. And if your child tends to be the taker, they’re going to LOSE THEIR MIND and obsess about the toys they can’t have. So fair warning- I don’t want anyone coming into the Posse telling me I’m full of it because it TOTALLY DIDN’T WORK. It’s not going to the first 50 times you do it. Empathize, empathize, empathize. And redirect.

And it is going to feel awkward. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to actually stop a parent from forcing their child to give whatever it is they have to mine. But…most are really receptive when I facilitate it.

So that’s it! I hope that this helps you navigate those awkward moments when you feel like everybody’s watching you and there’s no good way out. It’s okay not to share, and turn-taking is better anyways. If this WAS helpful for you and you’d like more scripts this like for navigating parenthood with uncommon sense- you can download my audio script pack. It contains 10 scripts for what my Facebook group- the Parenting Posse– chose as the 10 most crazy-making behaviors. And I recently changed the delivery system of them-so if you’ve had a hard time accessing them in the past I hope this way is a bit more mobile friendly.


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About Allana

Hi, I’m Allana. I teach parents of toddlers and preschoolers why their children are misbehaving and what to do about it without yelling, shaming, or using time-outs. When not teaching parents about behaviour you can generally find me chasing around my two boys, reading cheesy romance novels, or hanging out with my own parents.

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