When children want something, their feelings are often passionate. They can be gripped by a desire so strong that no other option will do. Every cell in their bodies is organized to communicate that having the blue shovel or the green balloon is the key to their happiness—a yellow shovel or a red balloon simply won't do. But as any parent who has tried to enforce sharing knows, taking turns at those moments is far easier said than done.
In this article, we'll look at why every child has at least some difficulties sharing, and we'll suggest a policy that you can establish that will move your child toward being able to share more of the time.
Children love sharing
Children actually love to share. When they're babies, they like to give us things, and have us give those things back. When they're a bit older, they like to take a plate of cookies and offer one to each person in the room. When older still, they love the games that include everyone in the family. And when they are relaxed and feeling secure, children even love to see someone else enjoy their favorite things.
To be able to share, a child needs to feel a strong sense of connection, he needs to feel loved and warmly accepted. When he feels close to others and emotionally safe, he's not so desperate for the blue shovel or the green balloon. He can wait for a turn. He has what he really needs; a sense of connection buoys him through little disappointments.
What children really want and need
Sharing goes hand in glove with being relaxed and feeling loved. Children have a few vital needs, and when these needs are filled, they can relax. They feel secure enough to play flexibly and respond thoughtfully to the needs and wishes of others. We all know that children need good food, good sleep, fresh air, room to play safely, and access to at least one or two people who are committed to their well-being. Parents, warmth, food, and safety: these are the most basic needs.
But in order to relax and thrive, children need a few more vital things. Blue shovels and green balloons aren't on this list. My list of what a child needs to thrive goes something like this:
- The daily opportunity to connect and be relaxed with someone who cares
- Emotional warmth and welcome
- Respect for his intelligence
- Time for play
- Lots of affection
- Frequent opportunities to laugh together with others
- Frequent opportunity to cry, in the shelter of someone's arms, when hurt feelings arise
- Information about what is happening and why
- Limits—enforced without violence—that promote safety and respect
Two main reasons sharing breaks down
When children aren’t able to share, it's usually for one of two reasons. Either they haven't been able to establish a sense of connection in the past few hours, or something has happened to remind them of hurtful times in the past, when they felt afraid or alone.
When children don't feel connected, they can't share
Often, we parents don't notice how much time passes between moments when we can offer emotional warmth and connection. Life is full, and putting food on the table and a roof over one's head is increasingly difficult. We meet the external needs of our children; we dress them, give them food, and see that they bathe and brush their teeth.
But the time parents have to create playful, relaxed connections with their children dwindles every year as workplace demands grow and communities struggle to provide safe and decent places for children. For dual-career couples with children under eighteen, the combined on-the-job hours have increased from an average of eighty-one a week in 1977 to ninety-one in 2002—according to the Work and Family Institute. And this does not take commuting hours into account.
So it's no wonder that children have spells of “off track” behavior. They are bound to spin out of orbit, given the amount of other work we parents are expected to do.
To a child, a sense of connection is like a tightrope walker's long pole: feeling close to someone keeps a child in balance, so he can do challenging things with grace and confidence. Without that sense of connection, his ability to function lasts only a few seconds. Unhitched from a close bond, he feels too tense to share, too unsure of his own safety to take turns.
When a child becomes brittle, any little disappointment brings up lots of tears or tantrums about what he wants. The child aches to be brought close, but he focuses on needing a blue shovel or a green balloon to signal his parents that he needs help.
How children signal that they need connection
Once in awhile, children can ask directly for the closeness that will help them. They run to Daddy and cling to his leg, or they beg to sit in Mommy's lap. But more often, children use signals that are less direct. A child will let a parent know he's running on empty by wanting only what someone else has, or by wanting all of something—all of the blocks, all of the crackers, or all of the long park bench. And sometimes, children will suddenly want something that is clearly off limits.
If you are a parent with a child who tends to signal you in one of these ways, rest assured that there’s nothing wrong with your child. He’s communicating well. He’s saying, “I need your help!”
Why children cry so easily about the small things they want
Once a child feels he can't live another minute without a desired item, the feelings run high. He has lost his sense of closeness and the safety that brings. He feels hurt, or even frightened. He tries to “fix” the feeling of hurt that comes when connection breaks by filling that sense of need with a blue shovel or a green balloon. But of course, blue shovels and green balloons don't meet the core needs of a child. He may cling to the item he wants, but it doesn't do his aching heart any good. When a child gets what he wants, he may look OK on the outside, but he often remains brittle on the inside—easily upset and either defensive or unhappily passive when someone else's turn comes.
Children cry easily at this point, because they need to. They often actually set up chances to cry about something they want, hoping their parents will know that they need to dissolve the hurt that comes from disconnection. Crying, tantrums, and laughter are the main ways children recover their sense that all's right with the world.
When an adult can set a helpful limit, and offer warmth and caring while feelings are high, a child can regain his sense of perspective. When he's done, he knows once again that life is OK with the yellow shovel, or that he'll eventually get some time with the green balloon.
It takes two to tangle
When two children want the same thing and they're both feeling connected and relaxed, they share. They can figure out something fun to do while they wait for their turn. When they're toddlers, they don't even need to talk about the turns. One takes the toy, and the other thinks about it, and then moves on to some other activity that pleases him. When children are older, they can figure out how to share verbally, and are pleased with themselves as they do it.
But when a child is tense, taking turns isn't his idea of a solution. He wants the blue shovel now! If a second child who wants the shovel is feeling connected, he can adjust his expectations and find something else to do for awhile. So problems with sharing arise primarily when both children are feeling rocky because they have lost their sense of connection.
The limitations of adult-enforced solutions
When children can't share, we parents want to fix the problem quickly. But fixing it—saying whose turn it is, and timing the turns so they're equal, for instance—makes us enforcers rather than connectors. Our children's “need” for the blue shovel may be met, five minutes at a time, but his deeper need to feel close to someone still throbs. So he can't share without help, and he continues to need help, incident after incident.
When adults insist on turns and a child's turn finally comes, that child may defend his hard-won item with all his energy, losing the joy of having it in the effort to defend his turn. Or he may gloat that he has it, upsetting the children around him.
Perhaps another, more subtle difficulty with adult-enforced sharing is that while we're sorting out a dispute, it's easy to slip into feeling like our children are immature, because sharing is simple. But sharing isn't easy for grownups either. The reality of the human condition is that a parent might try to negotiate turns between the children one minute, and return to the kitchen to continue a longstanding disagreement with a partner over sharing the tasks of the household or who decides what the family will do on Sunday.
I think the most compelling reason not to habitually enforce turns is that it focuses our attention on trying to make things “the same” for each child, rather than on connecting with each child. When children don't feel connected to you or to each other, their disputes will continue, and run your patience into the ground. They feel needy. No amount of enforcement can help them relax and work things out with tolerance and good will.
It can be smart to set up and patrol turns when you're in a public place and tantrums will undo your own composure, when exhaustion prevents you from being able to listen to anyone's feelings, or when you're working with a large group of children, and paying attention to one will leave the others unsafe.
A sharing approach that works
But on our good days, we adults can actually help children undo the tensions that make sharing an ongoing challenge. A policy that, over time, helps children relax enough to share well and often is this:
I'll be with you while you wait.
When your child wants something he can't have, and you come close and keep him company during his tears or his tantrum, you meet his core need to get rid of deep feelings. You connect. While he is in the throes of big feelings, he may feel angry with you for not “solving” the problem, but he'll feel quite loving toward you when he's finished shedding those feelings.
Crying, trembling, and having tantrums are children's way of dissolving the power of an upset, so they can regain their ability to see that there are many options that would satisfy them. When we stay and love them until the storm is over, they have the strongest possible sense of security: “My Dad loves me no matter what.” “My Mommy loved me, even when I told her to go away!”
When parents or caregivers adopt this policy, sooner or later every child will have the chance to offload his feelings of need. Shana gets the dolly stroller for a long turn today while Anita cries about wanting it. Tomorrow, Anita gets the stroller while Jordan has a tantrum because he wants it. Shana had a good cry two days ago, so she's relaxed enough to want it, see that Anita has it on a third day and move on to play under the table instead. Each child gets your arm around them while they cry, and hears your reassuring words, “Anita will be through with it sometime. I'll stay with you while you wait.”
Set a goal of long-term fairness
With this policy, you don't have to spend your energy trying to make things the same for each child in the short run. A child who wants to ride the only tricycle in the yard may get a whole twenty minutes while her friend cries hard about wanting it. But the child who cries gets a caring adult's full attention, a far more significant prize than the tricycle. And the child who has the trike doesn't have to defend her toy—she can play without fear that something will be arbitrarily taken. She also has the opportunity to offer a turn out of real generosity, rather than being forced to “act nice” because an adult says she must.
Sometimes, a child clings tightly to a toy or other desired item for days at a time, never letting others have a turn. In this case, you need to be proactive about the “I'll be with you while you wait” policy. You let the child know that tomorrow will be different: “Sam, tomorrow when Maggie comes to play, she's going to get to ride the trike first, and I'll help you wait.”
You know that when Maggie gets there, Sam will make a bee-line for the trike! So, prepared to help Sam connect with you, you get there first, saying, “Sam, today Maggie gets the first turn. Let's move back a step so she can climb on.” Sam then gets to have the cry and the personal attention he's been signaling for.
Outcomes you can expect over time
This policy puts great trust in the good nature of children. It is based on the reliable, healing power of tantrums and of crying hard. When a caring adult listens well as a child cries long and hard about the turn he's not getting, several outcomes are often seen. It can happen that the other child comes and willingly offers a turn, having found empathy in her heart. It can also happen that a child cries long and hard, and then decides there's something else he wants to do. Usually, if his cry hasn't been cut short, he'll be relaxed and undaunted by not getting the item he wanted. Its importance fades as the feel of your love seeps in.
Over time, children whose feelings are listened to become much better able to make friends, and navigate the intricacies of sharing. They become less defensive and less aggressive. They laugh more and fight less. This transformation happens gradually, but if you are listening to a child's feelings, you can depend on good results.
An adult who will stay close, hold a reasonable limit, and listen to a child's feelings can fill the core needs of the child. You don't have to rummage through the garage for a second blue shovel or try to find a green balloon just like the one that Sally has. You simply need to listen while your child cries about what he wants but can't have, until he can tell he's OK and you love him.
Here's how “I'll be with you while you wait” works:
I held a small parent/child playtime for parents of children who were under three. One little girl I'll call Anna was brought by her two parents, who also had her baby brother in their arms.
During the Special Time portion of the playtime, Anna's father began paying full attention to her. She immediately began running around the play space loudly chanting, “Baby! Baby! Baby! Baby!” over and over again. It was easy to conclude that she was announcing the issue that was most on her mind.
After Special Time, another girl, whom Anna had totally ignored, happened to be playing with a red ball. It was one of three balls that were identical, except for their colors. Anna went over and whined that she wanted the red ball. I told her gently that she could have it when the child was finished with it, and I pointed to the two other balls available. She took in my answer, and began to scream.
Her father came over and held her while she curled into his arms, screamed at the top of her lungs, and cried. She went back and forth from kicking and screaming to sobbing and burrowing into him. I stayed close to support him. Together, we listened to her feelings, and now and then we told her she could have a ball, but not the one Ginger was playing with. She cried hard for about twenty minutes. Then, she looked out and saw that Ginger had finished with the red ball, and was playing with some cardboard blocks.
Anna wiped her eyes, and, finally free of that load of feelings, went over and gently, thoughtfully entered into play with Ginger. The red ball was of no interest to either of them. They spent the next half-hour playing in very close proximity, sharing easily and laughing lots. Not once did Anna show possessiveness over sharing space or sharing toys. She had had her good cry, she had gotten her father's listening and attention, and her needs had been met. With her improved confidence, she made a friend.
From the Hand in Hand Toolbox:
- Up connection with you and your child with a daily dose of Special Time. Here's what that is and how to do it.
- Troubles with siblings? Read our Ultimate Guide to Sibling Rivalry and learn how to bring back calm
- Listen to this free recording and learn how to Set Limits without Saying “Time-Out!”