Helping Children to Share (page 3)
When children want something, their feelings are often passionate. They can be gripped by a desire so strong that no other option will do. Every cell in their bodies is organized to communicate that having the blue shovel or the green balloon is the key to their happiness--a yellow shovel or a red balloon simply won't do! But as any parent who has tried to enforce sharing knows, taking turns at those moments is far easier said than done!
In this article, we'll look at why every child has at least some difficulties sharing, and we'll suggest a policy that you can establish that will move your child toward being able to share more of the time.
Children love to share
Children actually love to share. When they're babies, they like to give us things, and have us give those things back. When they're a bit older, they like to take the plate of cookies and offer one to each person in the room. When older still, they love the games that include everyone in the family. And when they are relaxed and feeling secure, children even love to see someone else enjoy their favorite things.
To be able to share, a child needs to feel a strong sense of connection--he needs to feel loved and warmly accepted. When he feels close and emotionally safe, he's not so desperate for the blue shovel or the green balloon. He can wait for a turn. He has what he really needs--a sense of connection buoys him through little disappointments.
What children really want and need
Sharing goes hand in glove with being relaxed and feeling loved. Children have a few vital needs, and when these needs are filled, they can relax. They feel secure enough to play flexibly and respond thoughtfully to the needs and wishes of others. We all know that children need good food, good sleep, fresh air, room to play safely, and access to at least one or two people who are committed to their well-being. Parents, warmth, food, safety. These are the most basic needs.
But in order to relax and thrive, children need a few more vital things. Blue shovels and green balloons aren't on this list! My list of what a child needs to thrive goes something like this:
- The daily opportunity to connect and be relaxed with someone who cares,
- Emotional warmth and welcome,
- Respect for his intelligence,
- Time for play,
- Lots of affection,
- Frequent opportunities to laugh together with others,
- Frequent opportunity to cry in the shelter of someone's arms when hurt feelings arise,
- Information about what is happening and why, and
- Limits, enforced without violence, that promote safety and respect.
Two main reasons sharing breaks down
When children aren’t able to share, it's usually for one of two reasons. Either they haven't been able to establish a sense of connection in the past few hours, or something has happened to remind them of hurtful times in the past, when they felt afraid or alone.
When children don't feel connected, they can't share
Often, we parents don't notice how much time passes between moments when we can offer emotional warmth and connection. Life is full, and putting food on the table and a roof over one's head is increasingly difficult. We meet the external needs of our children--we dress them, give them food, see that they bathe and brush their teeth. But the time parents have to create playful, relaxed connections with their children dwindles every year as workplace demands grow and communities struggle to provide safe and decent places for children. For dual-career couples with children under 18, for example, the combined on-the-job hours have increased from an average of 81 a week in 1977 to 91 in 2002, according to the Work and Family Institute. And this does not take commuting hours into account! So it's no wonder that children have their "off track" behavior spells--they are bound to spin out of orbit, given the amount of other work we parents are expected to do.
To a child, a sense of connection is like a tightrope walker's long pole--feeling close to someone keeps a child in balance, so he can do challenging things with grace and confidence. Without that sense of connection, his ability to function lasts only a few seconds. Unhitched from a close bond, he feels too tense to share, too unsure of his own safety to take turns.
When a child becomes brittle, any little disappointment brings up lots of tears or tantrums about what he wants. The child aches to be brought close, but he focuses on needing a blue shovel or a green balloon to signal his parents that he needs help.
How children signal that they need connection
Once in awhile, children can ask directly for the closeness that will help them. They run to Daddy and cling to his leg, or they beg to sit in Mommy's lap. But children often use signals that are less direct. A child will let a parent know he's running on empty by wanting only what someone else has, or by wanting all of something--all of the blocks, all of the crackers, or all of the long park bench. And sometimes, children will suddenly want only something that is clearly off limits. If you are a parent with a child who tends to signal you in one of these ways, rest assured that there’s nothing wrong with your child! He’s communicating well. He’s saying, “I need your help!”
Why children cry so easily about the small things they want
Once a child feels he can't live another minute without a desired item, the feelings run high. He has lost his sense of closeness and the safety that brings. He feels hurt, or even frightened. He tries to "fix" the feeling of hurt that comes when connection breaks by filling that sense of need with a blue shovel or a green balloon. But of course, blue shovels and green balloons don't meet the core needs of a child. He may cling to the item he wants, but it doesn't do his aching heart any good. When a child gets what he wants, he may look OK on the outside, but he may remain brittle on the inside--easily upset and either defensive or unhappily passive when someone else's turn comes.
Children cry easily at this point, because they need to. They often actually set up chances to cry about something they want, hoping their parents will know that they need to dissolve the hurt that comes from disconnection. Crying, tantrums, and laughter are the main ways children recover their sense that all's right with the world.
When an adult can set a helpful limit, and offer warmth and caring while feelings are high, a child can regain his sense of perspective. When he's done, he knows once again that life is OK with the yellow shovel, or that he'll eventually get some time with the green balloon.
It takes two to tangle
When two children want the same thing, and they're both feeling connected and relaxed, they share. They can figure out something fun to do while they wait for their turn. When they're toddlers, they don't even need to talk about the turns. One takes the toy, and the other thinks about it, and then moves on to some other activity that pleases him. When children are older, they can figure out how to share verbally, and are pleased with themselves as they do it.
But when a child is tense, taking turns isn't his idea of a solution. He wants the blue shovel now! If a second child who wants the shovel is feeling connected, he can adjust his expectations and find something else to do for awhile. So problems with sharing arise primarily when both children are feeling rocky because they have lost their sense of connection.
Reprinted with the permission of Hand in Hand Parenting. © 1997-2011 Hand in Hand
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