Thursday, September 15, 2011

Learning To Share By Taking Turns

As the mother of a toddler, I have become quite familiar with the ubiquitous parental chant, "Share, share, share!" I understand the sentiment behind the word: we want our children to be giving, to treat others with kindness, and to play fairly. We want to teach our kids to get along well with others.

Still, the instruction to "share" doesn't sit well with me and I've never used that language with Munchkin. Part of it is because I don't subscribe to the idea that telling Munchkin to give another child his toy will instill him with empathy or generosity (more on this issue later!). But mostly, I realized that the problem for me was the misuse of the verb "to share". According to, the verb "to share" means:

3. to divide and distribute in shares; apportion
4. to use, participate in, enjoy, receive, etc, jointly: The two chemists shared the Nobel prize [emphasis mine]
5. to have a share or part; take part (often followed by in)
6. to divide, apportion, or receive equally

Sharing, then, means dividing up or to taking part in at the same time. You can share a banana. You can share a drink. You can share a bed. You can share a ball if you pass it back and forth as part of a game. 

From what I have observed, this is not what parents are usually asking of their children in social settings. When a mother tells her child to "share" his toy, what she really means is that he should give it to the other child to play with. For adults and older kids, this use of the  word "share" is understandable. We know that "sharing" a toy involves taking turns, not splitting up, giving away, or simultaneous use. Older children understand that the other kid will play with it for awhile, and that eventually he'll get his bike or car back. On the playground, kids call this taking turns. When kids actually share a toy or activity simultaneously, it's called playing together. For simplicity, people tend to refer to all of these acts as "sharing" because they all embody the essence of sharing: kindness and fairness. However, this mix-up of wording is a real problem for younger kids.

Toddlers, babies, and very young children don't understand all these nuances of the word "share". To them, the command to share simply means what the parent's request suggests: "Give your toy to the other kid." For some, there is  even the added ultimatum, "or I'll do it for you." This command to share naturally leads to resistance. I think this is partly due to confusion in the immature mind. Consider the toddler's thought process: When I share my cracker, I don't get it back. If I share my toy, it might be gone forever, too. How do I share the couch if I am sitting on I have to move first? A young toddler can't be expected to fully grasp the distinction between sharing, as in a snack, AND taking turns, AND playing nicely side by side -- especially when adults inaccurately label each one as "sharing".

Even as a child begins to understand that the toy will eventually come back to him, it seems an added and unnecessarily difficult challenge to "share" when the child must also do mental hurdles around language. Moreover, lessons in possession and playing together happen slowly and often painfully for the toddler. We ask a lot of their unripe cognitive, emotional and social abilities when we simply ask them to "share".

Young children need precise language in order to understand what's asked of them. I think we can make it a lot easier on toddlers and preschoolers to learn about sharing by saying what we really mean.  When I realized what we are truly asking of children when we say "share", I began to use the correct language to describe it. Instead of talking about "sharing", I describe and gently suggest actions related to taking turns:

I think your friend would like a turn with the shovel now.
She is having a turn with the car now. When she's done then you can have a turn.
Not now, Johnny. Munchkin is having a turn. Munchkin, when you're done with your turn, would you like to give Johnny the ball?
There, he's done with the scooter. Would you like to have a turn now?

Then I follow through on my words and give each child who wants a turn a chance to take their turn, even if they become interested in something else. Munchkin may get upset for a moment, but once I reassure him that he gets a turn also, he settles down. He recovers remarkably quickly without fighting about it. He believes my words because they have observable meaning.

This shift in language has been so effective with Munchkin that I've started using it in other situations. I can now use turn-taking to set personal limits and boundaries between me and Munchkin: You can have a turn holding the vacuum when I'm done with my turn. It's my turn to choose the music...after this song, then you can have a turn listening to your song. It's my turn to go for a run...when I'm done, you can get out of the BOB and have a turn running, too.

I still use the word "share", but I try to use it correctly in reference to things we partake of together: Sure, I'll share my water with you. Do you want to share your grapes with him? Look, you two can share the piano; there is room for both of you to play together at the same time.

The suggestion to "take turns" instead of "share" is more than an issue of semantics. For a toddler who struggles with age-specific issues of permanence, separation, and ownership, the words "have a turn" are powerful, indeed. This promise to take turns reassures Munchkin that he still has a right to the coveted object or activity, just not right now. He knows that taking turns doesn't mean relinquishing the object indefinitely. It means a temporary separation, just like when mama goes to the store without him.  

While Munchkin waits for his turn, he is also learning a bit about patience. He is learning to let go and to receive again. And with some encouragement and patience from me, he might just learn to share.

Questions? Comments? Yes, please!


  1. I found you through a link on facebook, and I'm so glad to read what you say here! My mama friends thought I was weird and immediately set me aside as a total granola when I insisted on using the language of "play together" or "take turns" with my little son. (They've grown used to me now, and I am a granola, so it's cool.) So glad to see I'm not the only one who thinks carefulness with language and specificity is important to toddler development. We use specific language with our daughter now, too. I think such language has had a positive impact on my son's and daughter's security and disposition in conflict.

    Thanks for writing about this!

  2. @Summer, yes, I know, it seems that aren't many of us who are so particular about the words we choose with the little guys. It's nice to hear that it's had a positive effect with your son, too!

  3. This is such a simple and effective way to be together. I am so glad we can "share" this experience with our kids!

  4. Your explanation of the use of language is very well put. Too much of society sees these tots as merely little people[adults] and expect they act that way. If more adults would put themselves in a toddler's shoes, more adults would use this type of communication. Thank you for your insightful ness.