Parents of toddlers, preschoolers, even school-age children sometimes feel there is no end to the task of getting children to share and take turns. It seems to be especially difficult—and embarrassing for parents—when the child is at a party or with “rivals” of their own age. The child’s own birthday party can be the worst, as he or she sulks, pouts, and makes every effort to prevent the party guests from touching any of the presents.
I suppose I needn’t point out how hard sharing and turn-taking is for us adults? We can’t see why there should such a fuss about a toy train, but we would not care for other people to expect to sleep in our beds or “take a turn” with our spouses. A whole lot of maturation and learning has gone into our adult capacity for sharing, such as it is. Yet, somehow we believe that it’s possible for a preschooler to have such a wonderful personality and such character that he or she will cheerfully share and take turns with the most precious toys in the toybox.
Well, guess what: it’s not possible. Whoever knows how to share, has learned to do it, with help and support from older people. It did not just happen, and what’s more, it did not happen in the moments of violent jealousy that are so conspicuous, but in various quiet events that took place along the way.
Looking through some papers the other day, I came across my notes from a lecture by Lisa Poelle, the author of the excellent book Chronic biting extinguished. Among other things, Lisa was considering the situations in which toddlers bite people, and thinking about ways we might make those situations less fraught and the children less easily frustrated. She had a number of suggestions about how we can prepare children for situations where we expect them to share or take turns.
One of Lisa Poelle’s suggestions was to find everyday situations where we can model taking turns by doing it ourselves and/or talking about how it’s being done, and by offering another person a turn doing what we have been doing. So, to take some of her examples:
- “I’ve been stirring the batter for a long time. Would you like a turn?”
- “Let’s play ball. My turn to roll it… your turn to roll it… my turn.”
- “Let’s put the puzzle together. I’ll do this piece… okay, your turn to do one. “
- “You can have a turn with the truck after Sam has it for three more minutes” (N.B. one of those three-minute egg timers can be a big help on this one).
- “I’m tying your sister’s shoes now. Next it will be your turn.”
A second suggestion is about helping the child know when a turn begins and ends. For example:
- “You put the doll down; that was the end of your turn. Jessica picked it up for her turn. When she puts it down it will be your turn again. “
- Pointing out situations where characters in books or in videos take turns can also be helpful.
A third suggestion is to point out how often adults as well as children have to wait for their turn. For example:
- “Let’s take a number at this counter. When the man is ready to wait on us he’ll call our number. We can look at these pictures while we wait.”
- “ All the cars are lined up to cross the bridge and each one gets a turn. We’ll wait for our turn before we go.”
- “We’ll wait for the traffic light to change before we walk across the street. When we see the little green man on the sign, that means it’s our turn to go.”
One problem preschoolers have about waiting for their turn is that they don’t have a very good idea of time. When we tell them “wait just a minute”, we might mean a real minute, or five minutes, or we might forget all about what we said-- so they don’t get much of an idea about how long they have to wait. Again, an egg timer may help with the waiting, at least by providing some distraction. Distraction may also be helpful if the waiting child can be helped to find something else to do until her turn comes around.
Can we expect children not only to share and take turns, but to be cheerful about it? Eventually we get to be skilled at these social “white lies”, where we thank people for presents we hate, or smile cheerfully as someone takes the last two chocolates instead of one or spills red wine on our cream-colored carpet. But that takes time and practice, and perhaps some adult experience with how we feel when other people are grouchy about problems. There’s no harm in trying to work with a preschooler on how to be polite when cross, but we need to remember that their basic tendency at this age is to become incensed and flounce around in a towering huff, several times a day. There is no taker of umbrage like a four-year-old! Our job, perhaps, is to avoid having our own anger triggered by the child’s ire—and to be sure that we do not respond angrily just because we are embarrassed in front of other adults. There’s more to model for the child than just turn-taking, and being calm when someone else is mad is something we should display to children if we can manage it.