By Carol Zeavin and Rhona Silverbush
Hello! We’re back — co-authors of the Terrific Toddlers picture books — with another column about the toddlers in your life. We’ve already written about how to help them with separations and boo-boos. Today’s column is about a particularly pesky adventure in toddler caregiving…we’re talking about SHARING.
In Carol’s initial days teaching toddlers, she learned (the hard way) that toddlers are constitutionally incapable of handing over what they are playing with simply because she asked them nicely, or because another toddler has been waiting patiently, or because another toddler is crying for it. She found that what seems rational to adults is often counterproductive to supporting and managing toddlers. So in our book, All Mine!, we address the reasons why NOT SHARING until they’re developmentally ready is so important for toddlers, and how we can help.
“But it looks so rude, so selfish!”
We hear you. But a toddler’s notoriously obnoxious difficulty sharing is actually a normal part of their psychological and social development. Toddlers are still in the early stages of being able to experience themselves as separate beings. And that’s exactly why they strive SO hard to assert their independence — they’re not “there” yet! Their “No!” and in this case “Mine!” are the strategies within their grasp for pursuing this quest for separate personhood. And, because they can only perceive the world concretely, everything they’re holding onto, reaching for, or just want feels like an integral part of themselves – “I have, therefore I am!”
Plus, in the social realm, the parts of the brain that will soon help toddlers understand that others want stuff too are not yet developed enough. And…toddlers lack the rationality and impulse control that we grownups rely on for a civil society! If they want something, they are simply mentally unable to conjure up reasons not to grab it. So, they shriek!
And yes, we understand, sometimes it’s just too much, and you’d like to know, “What’s the harm in pushing them to share before they’re ready? I mean, they can say the ABCs long before they know what the alphabet means, so why not at least help them look like they’re sharing even if they can’t genuinely do it yet?”
Well, lots of research tells us that making toddlers share before they’re ready can actually backfire. It can make toddlers feel a need to hold onto stuff a lot longer than they otherwise would, because they still feel insecure about their ownership. Allowing them to “own” this phase brings mastery of the phase. Then they can willingly and joyfully share.
As for turn-taking, the logical stepping stone to sharing: since toddlers have no sense of time, turn-taking can be tricky because giving someone else a turn “for a few minutes” feels the same as “forever.” And hearing it’s their turn “next” may not go over so well, either! But we know turn-taking can be fun, so just make sure the toddler is sincerely in the game, keep the intervals between turns very short at first (one-two-three — now it’s your turn again!) and make sure it’s fun for the toddler. If it’s not, have patience and just wait for development to kick in. Because…
Good news! Around age three, toddlers start to firm up their sense of self and become more interested in socializing with and acceptance from peers, so their treasured objects get easier to share.
“But,” you may ask, “What can we do in the meantime, while we’re waiting for all that development to kick in?!”
You can SHOW them how it’s done! When you show your toddler that you enjoy sharing, that there’s real joy in it, you’re modeling something they can internalize and emulate.
And most importantly, as always, VALIDATE! Reassure your toddler that you understand (“I see you really need that”), then give them a few more words to help them stand up for their right to hold onto what they need, as the teacher does in All Mine! (“Tell JoJo, ‘You can have it when I’m done’”). And remember that both the grabber and the grabbee are equally in need of validation, because both are engaged in the same developmental struggle!
At the end of All Mine!, the teacher validates JoJo’s need to have ALL the crayons, because the teacher understands JoJo does need them, for good developmental reasons!
If you have questions (“Kai doesn’t even get ONE crayon?!”) we’re happy to answer them! Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org, and we’ll answer as many as we can in an upcoming column.