Two toddler boys. One shiny yellow toy truck. The minute my son and I arrived at the playground and saw the boy already there playing with his toy, I recognized a disaster in the making.
Sure enough, within seconds my son had run across the field and snatched the truck. I followed him, chanting, “Share the toys!” The other boy’s mother quickly joined in, urging her son to share with mine.
It seems like a good solution — let everyone play with the toy. But I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s a terrible way to teach sharing. In fact, I’m pretty sure toddlers have no idea what “share” means. My gentle urging to “share” never had any effect on my toddler — all it did was escalate the conflict. Pretty soon, my son and the other child would both be holding onto the toy for dear life, pulling as hard as he could, while the other parent and I forcibly pulled them apart. All we were teaching was that snatching a toy is okay, as long as an adult does it.
There had to be a better way.
I’d glimpsed an alternative when my older daughter was a toddler. A friend was babysitting both my daughter and another little girl, and both girls were fascinated by a toy stroller. But instead of encouraging them to share, my babysitter enforced taking turns. “Now it’s your turn,” she told my daughter, who eagerly grabbed the stroller and pushed it around the room. After a few minutes, my friend said, “Ok, now it’s your friend’s turn!” And to my amazement, my daughter willingly handed the stroller over and waited patiently till it was her turn again.
The key, my babysitter told me, was to understand the kids’ social development. At age two, a child is just starting to understand that other people have feelings. To share, you have to interact in a way that’s respectful of the other person’s feelings, which is hard if you keep forgetting that they have them. But taking turns is a simple routine that toddlers can understand. And keeping the turns just a few minutes long meant they were short enough for even a two year old’s patience.
I was impressed with my friend’s method — but I gave some credit to my daughter’s naturally gentle personality. And my son is anything but gentle. He’s like a force of nature that trampled everything in its path. (His nickname is “The Destroyer.”) So when I decided to try this method with him, it was more out of desperation than a belief that it might actually work.
We were at the playground again. This time, it was a ball instead of a truck. My son made a beeline to snatch it. As he turned to toss it to me to play catch, the little girl who’d been playing with it burst into tears.
But instead of grabbing the ball back from him to hand it to her, I narrated what was happening. “She had the ball. You took the ball. She’s sad. She’s crying. I think she wants to finish her turn with the ball.”
At first, my son was too delighted with his newfound toy to pay attention to what I was saying. But I kept talking. “She had the ball. You took the ball. She wants the ball back. Can she finish her turn please?”
Slowly, he started to pay attention. He paused, ball clutched in his hands, and turned to look at the little girl for the first time. I watched realization dawn in his face: she existed. She was a person, too. And she was crying.
“I think she’s sad because she wants the ball,” I said. “She wasn’t finished playing with the ball. She wants to finish her turn. It’s her turn for the ball.”
Time seemed to stop. My son stood frozen, staring at the little girl. I held my breath, sensing the frustration of the little girl’s mom, hoping against hope that I wouldn’t be forced to grab the ball back from him and enforce justice.
And then? The unthinkable happened. My son ran to the little girl and held the ball out. “Here!” he said. Delight rang in his voice. “Your turn!”
The little girl stared at him, afraid it was a trick. But he stood there offering the ball, waiting, and finally, she took it back. I breathed a sigh of relief. My son wasn’t a socially inept monster. At least not today.
“Wow, he’s sharing the ball!” said the little girl’s mother in an approving tone. “Good sharing!”
I didn’t contradict her. But I smiled at my son and said, “She looks happy she gets a turn!”