When I was growing up, kids learned to share the natural way. Even though families were larger, houses were smaller. We had to share bedrooms and bathrooms. Parents and kids managed to make do with a single TV set, which was fine, since there were only a few channels. And when it came to treats, "supersize" hadn't been invented yet, so we divvied up our regular little portions.
Today kids aren't given as many opportunities to figure out that sharing's a necessary evil. But it's a critical skill for them to learn, so how can we make them better at it?
This is the tough part. You can't make kids share. The more you try, the less they'll want to do it. (Or worse: They won't share on purpose because it's a guaranteed way for them to get your attention.)
And even if you figure out how to get your oldest child to share -- fairly easy, given that there's no real competition at home -- your second child, like mine, may be pathologically possessive. Whatever anyone else has, my toddler wants. And because she has more sound effects than words, she grinds away like a blender full of ice until she gets it.
It may be tempting to give in, but that's not the answer. With the help of other moms, I've figured out a few things that work, especially for the sharing hot spots that affect kids at each stage:
Martha Brockenbrough is the author of It Could Happen to You: Diary of a Pregnancy and Beyond.
ToddlersSure, your 2-year-old is physically able to pick up a toy and let it go. But she's not old enough to truly understand the time-related aspect of sharing -- that she can give something up for a while and get it back later.
The #1 hot spot: Everything
Before you start breathing into a paper bag, though, take note: Experts believe children are hardwired to give and take, since sharing is beneficial for individuals and society. Our job is to lay the groundwork for them to understand the big picture, that there's plenty to go around if we all take turns.
You can use happy words and gestures to describe this so your toddler thinks something fun is happening, even if she doesn't fully understand what she's doing. The script might sound like this: "Look, honey! We're sharing! My turn, your turn! Fun! Fun! Fun!"
I can actually quantify how much this advice is worth to me: $1.03. I've been saying "Sharing! Fun! Thank you!" to my 18-month-old, Alice, for months to try to get her to relax her death grip. Finally, she handed me three quarters, two dimes, one nickel, and three pennies she'd found in the sofa cushions, saying "Tank you!" each time she made a deposit in my palm.
Unfortunately, controlled sharing lessons don't preclude heat-of-the-moment breakdowns. Recently, I was reading Alice her favorite book about the many sounds cats make. Then her older sister, Lucy, 4, came along. No problem, I thought. I'll let Lucy read it to her sister. That way, I won't have to hiss and lick for the next ten minutes.
But as soon as Lucy got her hands on the book, Alice started crying. When I took the book back, Lucy started crying. What to do?
Luckily, my husband was home during this sharing crisis, so I called for help. He read Alice the book while I occupied Lucy by whispering her favorite story (she had to be quiet to listen).
When help's not around, your best bet is to try a deal or a diversion. Deals work better for older toddlers, who may absorb the information and actually have the patience to wait for a minute or two. You might say, "After I finish reading to your little sister, I'll paint your toenails while she's taking a nap. And I'll even let you hold the bottle of polish." Make it sound incredible, like you can't believe you're saying it.
If a deal isn't possible, try distracting both kids. As long as you have two hands, you have two puppets that can tickle and speak in wacky accents. When no one's looking, slide the book under the couch so everyone forgets about it.
PreschoolersUnlike toddlers, preschoolers can comprehend a lot more about taking turns. After all, this is when your child really begins to absorb the lesson that if he doesn't play nicely with others, no one will want to be around him. But don't expect your child to be an expert at sharing by any stretch. That takes years.
The #1 hot spot: Playdates
There's nothing like having a friend over to get a preschooler screaming and crying. No toy is more valuable than the one someone else wants.
To ease the pain, Jennifer Viars of Nashville offers her 3-year-old a choice of which object to share, such as the red or the blue crayon. "This way Nicholas still feels like he has some control and is less likely to have a meltdown," she says.
Similarly, when you're negotiating a tug-of-war between your child and his playmate, encourage them to be as specific as possible with their requests. For instance, rather than having your child ask, "Can I share?" get him to ask, "Can I play with the blocks now?"
If the kids keep fighting over a particular object, Jenny Evans, mom of 4-year-old twins and a 16-month-old in Roseburg, Oregon, calls for a time-out, but with a twist: She puts the disputed toy -- rather than the tots -- in a time-out, so it's off-limits for everyone. She also tells her kids, "If the toy's out and about, then it's fair game. If you don't want to share, you have to take your toy into your room and play by yourself." (Better yet, if your child has an object that's so special he can't let it go, let him put it away before the playdate.)
At this age, kids better understand long-term consequences of their behavior, which makes for more effective rewards (also known as bribing). Julie Clark, a neighbor of Evans's, made a bingo-style chart for 5-year-old Aidan. He gets a star each time she catches him sharing or doing some other desired action. When he has five stars in a row, he gets a treat, like going bowling.
Grade-schoolersBy this age, most kids have learned -- in theory, at least -- the basics of sharing: Be patient, be fair, don't hoard, and don't flip the board game when you're losing. Think of the games they're old enough to enjoy, such as soccer and baseball. If they can learn the rules of these sports, they're also old enough to learn the teamwork and self-control required to share. (Of course, they won't always play fair. As with soccer and baseball, kids like to win -- which means getting their way.)
The #1 hot spot: Taking advantage of younger sibs
Janice Aaltink of Ontario, Canada, recalls some dirty tricks her eldest daughter, Marijke, played on her sister, Rachael, when the girls were 9 and 3. Marijke would gobble her food and then swipe from Rachael's plate, saying she was "teaching" Rachael to share. But Rachael wasn't allowed to take food from her big sister because, as Marijke claimed, she'd already learned to share and didn't need lessons. Along the same lines, an older sib might treat herself to an hour of TV and only let her little brother watch five minutes of his DVD.
Rather than play referee, give your kids the tools to solve their own problems. If they often squabble over which DVD to watch on family movie night, let one child pick the movie and the other child pick the snack. They'll figure out they can win on both counts by agreeing. Or, if they're taking turns with a computer, give them a timer.
If you are dragged into disputes, skip jury duty and stay neutral. Or limit your involvement to coaching, as Ruth Gudjonis-Franco of Chicago does with her two daughters, ages 9 and 7.
"You ask for the toy," she says to one. Then, to the other, she says: "Now you say okay," adding: "When you want it back, you ask for it." And finally, to the first: "Now you say okay." "Repeat," she says, "until everyone's breathing resumes a normal pattern."
Knowing that most sharing hot spots have solutions is enough to get me breathing normally myself.