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

I noticed that sharing has been causing quite a stir in our Parenting Posse group, and in other parenting communities I’m part of. It seems like everyone’s discussing this hot topic lately. Maybe it’s the impending back-to-school season – who knows! But seeing the same questions pop up time and again signals to me that we need to sit down and have a good chat about it.

Sharing, as simple as it seems, can feel like a spotlight moment for parents. Just like greetings and goodbyes, it’s one of those instances when your parenting style is under scrutiny. Suddenly, your little one’s squabble with another kid turns into a circus act, and it feels like all eyes are on you, judging your every reaction. It’s high time we demystify this and make the ‘sharing’ experience less of a stressor for you.

A brief detour: Understanding Play Development

Before we dive into the ocean of ‘sharing’, let’s first dip our toes into the pool of play development. Did you know there are six stages of play development starting with unoccupied play at birth and leading up to cooperative play around age 5? Don’t fret if your little one hasn’t hit a stage yet; the timeline is more of a guideline than a rule. Some kids reach these stages early, while others take their sweet time.

And to those parents basking in the glory of their kids hitting play stages early, here’s a gentle reminder: it’s not about superior parenting or genius kids! On the other hand, if your child is a bit slow to reach these stages, take a deep breath. It’s perfectly normal. Nobody is going to quiz them about their play development in their first job interview. Your child is not less smart, and you’re not failing them. It’s all good, I promise.

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Associative and Cooperative Play: What’s the difference?

Let’s delve into two particular stages of play—associative play and cooperative play—that have a direct connection to sharing.

Associative play usually unfolds between ages 3 and 4. Picture two kids playing kitchen. They’re both in the same kitchen, cooking up imaginary meals, but they’re not exactly doing it together. Sari is busy making cereal for her toy baby, and Will is grilling fake steaks for his teddy friends. There is some interaction, but not much.

Then comes cooperative play around ages 5 to 6. This is when kids begin to truly share. They use the same toys, follow the same plot, and everyone is in sync. If they’re playing superheroes, they’re all saving the same city from the same villain. When Superman uses his X-ray vision, everyone understands and reacts accordingly.

Think about two kids sword fighting. One kid knocks the other’s sword away and grabs it. If they’re in the associative play stage, the disarmed kid will yell, “I was playing with that! Give it back!” In the cooperative play stage, however, the disarmed kid switches to hand-to-hand combat, acknowledging that retrieving the sword is now part of the game.

The two situations may look similar, but they’re vastly different, and understanding this difference will shape your expectations for sharing. If your 3-year-old is transitioning from parallel play to associative play, expecting them to share is, quite simply, asking them to do something they’re not yet capable of.

To Share, or Not to Share?

Now, here’s a shocker: It’s perfectly okay if your child does not share. Let’s face it, kids generally learn “sharing” when another child snatches a toy from them, and adults insist that they’ve played with it long enough. But think about it, if someone grabbed your phone while you were scrolling through Instagram, would you hand it over, saying, “Sure, you have a go”? I didn’t think so.

Just like us, our children are entitled to use their possessions for as long as they wish. Bringing a toy to the park doesn’t automatically make it communal property.

Teaching Turn-Taking: Sharing Reinvented

So, if not sharing, what should we be teaching our 2, 3, 4, and 5-year-olds? The answer is turn-taking.

But hang on, I’m not talking about timed turns with a stopwatch. Research shows that if kids expect interruptions, they keep their play shallow, not benefiting or learning much. Instead, a turn lasts as long as a child holds onto a toy. It ends when they put it down and walk away.

So, if another child snatches a toy, return it and say, “Omar is playing with that. Can you ask him to bring it to you when he’s done?” Tell Omar, “When you finish playing with the airplane, can you let Nisha know? She would like a turn.”

Of course, younger ones might not necessarily alert the other child when they’re done, but it’s important to set this expectation. If Omar leaves the airplane and runs off to play with a dinosaur, you can tell Nisha, “Look, Omar seems done with the airplane. You can use it now.”

Brace for the Storm: The Road to Sharing is Bumpy

Now, fair warning: If you’re switching from the ‘forced sharing’ method to this new approach, prepare for a storm. It’s going to escalate before it improves. You might witness some extreme reactions: kids hoarding toys like their life depends on it or losing their minds over toys they can’t have. Don’t panic or assume this new method doesn’t work—it will, just give it some time.

So, there you have it! I hope this helps you sail smoothly through those awkward ‘sharing’ moments when it feels like everyone’s watching, judging your every move. Remember, it’s okay not to share, and turn-taking is the way to go.

If you found this helpful and want more tips for navigating parenthood with uncommon sense, feel free to download my audio script pack. It contains ten scripts for dealing with the ten most crazy-making behaviours, as chosen by our Parenting Posse Facebook group. Plus, I’ve recently made it more mobile-friendly!

Let’s keep learning together, one parenting hurdle at a time!

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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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