It is the bane of early childhood--how do we teach children to share? Very young children start off life as giving beings. When they are babies, they have a built-in natural empathy. When they see someone sad, they pat a shoulder. When they see someone hungry they offer them their bottle. But somewhere around the age of two, children learn that there are finite resources in the world. They become insecure. Suddenly, it becomes very important that "It's Mine."
Demanding possession of an object becomes a way to attract and hold attention. Patty Wipfler at Hand to Hand points out that possessive behavior and tantrums are tied to a child's sense of worth and his or her connection to the people and places around them. Children who feel loved, safe, and have their needs fulfilled are more likely to be giving. This explains why children thrust into a new environment such as preschool or who are introduced to a new child are going to be more reluctant to share or take turns. Whereas a child will happily take a plate of cookies around and offer them to family members. When that same child is tense and insecure all that natural empathy is lost.
Children signal their discomfort with a situation by clinging or by demanding possession of some object - often an unattainable one. They may cry or have a screaming tantrum. And if they finally do get the object, they really aren't happy about it, because the object wasn't what they truly wanted. They wanted love and connectivity. They wanted to feel safe and secure. An object can't give them that.
Sharing isn't easy. Adults have just as much trouble sharing as children do. When someone has something you want, you may take out your "jealousy" by hating that person or competing with them or trying to get that item from them or gloat when you get something better. If you have something precious to you - a family heirloom, a piece of jewelry, a new car - you may not want to share it with someone else. As adults, we can use words or problem-solving to deal with these situations. Young children, having less self-control than an adult, may resort to hitting or screaming.
One of the tried and true methods to deal with one object and two screaming children is taking turns. Enforced sharing doesn't work. When adults try to quickly solve a sharing problem by making the children take turns, no one is satisfied, because the deep-seated need is not for the object, but for comfort. Wipfler recommends staying with the crying, upset child and comforting them. Put your arm around them. Say reassuring words.
If another child has the object, assure the child you will stay by them until they get a turn. By giving them your assurance that you love them even when they are being horrible and miserable, you relieve their tension and insecurity.
Dr. Sears also recommends modeling generosity, play sharing games, and providing moments when the child is calm, safe, and secure to encourage children to share. So as hard as it is, remember that it is not the object that matters, it is the child.
This 1985 Leo Lionni children's classic is a great read aloud for early childhood and lower elementary. In the story, three frogs live on an island and have a great deal of trouble sharing everything. One day a toad comes to the island and complains that there is no peace, because the frogs are fighting all the time. Then a flood comes, and they learn that they all share the same needs and fears.
Play the following cooperative game, adapted for a whole class from the Jump on the Island Game on the inside cover of the book. (Warning: includes fun math)
Go outside in an open field or yard. Place three hula hoops at some distance from each other (Hoops are optional, but do help keep children spread out. A landmark of some kind could be used instead.) Choose three children to stand in the hula hoops. Explain that the hoops are islands, and the child inside the hoop a helpful toad. Everyone else is a frog. Have the rest of children line up a distance away. Imagine that it is raining. They have to hop to one of the islands and hold the hands of the toad or hold the hand of someone who is holding on to the toad to survive the flood. When everyone is safe, the toads must yell "All Safe!" Try it. (Have them squat and hold on to their ankles when hopping. This will prevent them from racing wildly and develop strength). Play the game several times with different children playing the toads.
Now for elementary children make the game more challenging. Designate one hoop an odd number and the other two even numbers. Now the frogs must hop to one of the islands, but there can be only an even number of frogs at two of the islands and an odd number at the other. Encourage the children to count together and help each other find a safe island.
After playing the odd-even and more challenging versions of the game discuss how the strategies they used helped each other find a safe place.
After playing cooperatively: For a comparison try the game as a competition by setting up rules so some frogs will not find a safe place - such as each island can only save a certain number of frogs. Play a few times and then discuss how it felt to be left out. How did it make them feel to know some would not be safe? If there was a real flood, what would happen to those who were not saved? Why is it better to cooperate?
Should we share everything?