Adults interrupt young children in a fraught struggle over a toy, by ordering “share”. The child drops the toy in tears and frustration, having learned that if you have something, you have to “share”? (AKA give up) Jacky Howell had an example in one of her trainings: Walking up to a woman, she looked into the other woman’s purse, saw her wallet, and said, “Share!”. It brought forth paroxysms of laughter among early childhood educators, not to mention parents. Point taken! When a very young child is absorbed in play, constructing with blocks, or racing a car along the carpet, an abrupt interruption of that child’s play, I believe, communicates disrespect for a child’s focused attention.
One of the key objectives of education is teaching children to be intentional in their learning process. If a child is playing with something, focusing on making it do something to the point of tuning out everyone else, imagine how startled and frustrated that child is if, out of the blue, another child grabs the toy, and adults order, “Share!”. What an adult has taught is that a child has no right to use his or her nascent negotiation skills for a few more minutes with the toys: No making some kind of trade, or coming up with any other solution to the problem. The child is learning nothing but anger, guilt, and a desire for revenge. You will see the revenge eventually, if you observe what happens later!
It doesn’t have to be this way.
You could be teaching negotiating skills, and respect for another’s desires. The Virginia Foundation Blocks for Early Learning give a thorough set of developmental objectives for fours, which can be modified for younger children. Standards such as “Initiate and sustain interactions with other children”, “demonstrate respectful and polite vocabulary”, and “begin to recognize and respond to the needs, rights, and emotions of others” are excellent objectives for both teachers and parents.
During my time in the ECE field, it has been my great pleasure to observe children working (the work of children is play, remember) on developing skills through their use of toys, especially what we call manipulatives. These are any toys that can be used in different ways to create a larger whole. Manipulatives include such objects as blocks, or found objects integrated with toys and blocks. This process develops over time, if adults allow lots of play time for these skills to develop. Children need negotiating skills to “share” these toys, because it is the nature of human life to need to learn to work together.
Teaching these negotiating skills is part and parcel of both teaching and parenting. As preschoolers grow, they need adults to have respect for their developing maturity. Commanding “share” ignores the truth of a child’s willingness to resolve a conflict in another way. They don't want to fight. They'd prefer another approach. Amid the flurry of feelings that erupt in an argument, a child needs a way into verbal negotiation. Saying, “use your words” is not enough. If they had the words, wouldn’t they be using them? You can give them words they can use, tools for life! Using such sentences as, “When will you be finished with that toy?” “Can I trade you this toy for that toy”?” What are you doing? Can I help?", are some sentences you can teach. I’ve found this last one to be have an amazing effect. Most children will easily open up to another child, sharing their toys as they explain to the other child the ideas that they are pursuing. Helping children to verbalize their meanings, intentions and expectations nurtures budding language skills.
There are many kindergarten readiness checklists where “sharing” and “taking turns” are among the skills listed. How about changing these to, “negotiating solutions to conflict in play”? This would be more useful as a tool in school, and in life, then ordering adult-mandated solutions.