Teaching Kids To Share

Considering Development and Encouraging Theory of Mind

I often find myself asking Keener to share. You have to share is also one of the most common phrases I overhear at the playground. But what am I really asking Keener to do in this situation? What does it mean to share?

As adults, we decide for ourselves when and what we want to share with others, whether it’s  our food, car, or home. But rarely, if ever, do we ask another adult to give up something that is theirs at the drop of a hat. Can I have your car? I want it.  That just doesn’t happen.

When we are asking our kids to share, we want to be realistic in the ask. I personally don’t like sharing my food. On occasion, I am fine going out to dinner and sharing food with friends and family, but if we are being honest, I really prefer not to. Yet, when we ask our kids to share and they don’t want to, we often make them.

There are a few problems embedded in the way we usually ask our kids to share. First, I don’t think kids actually know what ‘share’ means. They hear us say the word share over and over, but most of the time they aren’t exactly sure what we are asking of them. Second, often when we ask our kids to share, they really don’t want to.  So how do we help our kids understand what this world of “sharing” is all about?

Before launching into what has helped recently with Keener, it’s important to note that we need to keep a child’s development in mind when talking about sharing. ‘Theory of mind’ is an important social-cognitive skill where a child can not only understand their own thoughts, feelings, and wants, but but can distinguish them from what others may be thinking, feeling and wanting.

A good example of this skill involves the following scenario. Take a bag of pretzels and put toys inside the bag, and then ask a child what is in the bag. That child will say pretzels, and be surprised to find there are toys inside the bag instead. Then ask the child “what do you think your friend will say is in this bag?” If the child is three years old, he will say toys, because the child is only thinking about what he knows about the contents of the bag. But if the child is four years old, he will say pretzels, because the four year old can understand that his friend will be tricked just like he was. The four year old is better able to distinguish his thoughts and see that they might be different from his friend’s thoughts.

According to Child Encyclopedia, theory of mind develops without specific teaching, but there are ways to help it develop more quickly by:

  • engaging in rich pretend play;
  • talking about people’s thoughts, wants, and feelings, and the reasons why they act the way they do;
  • hearing and talking about stories, especially those involving surprises, secrets, tricks, and mistakes. These stories invite children to see things from different points of view (Red Riding Hood doesn’t know that the wolf is dressed up as grandma).

Language also plays a big role, and below is some of the language I have used to help Keener develop theory of mind and build his understanding about why I am asking him to share:

I know you love playing with the lawn mower. Do you know who else does? Your friend Clark. When he is over, he also loves playing with the lawn mower, just like you do! That’s why it is important to let Clark have a turn, just like you love having your turn.

You have to look with your eyes to see if a toy is available. Sometimes, someone will have something that you might want. If it is in their hands, they want it too! You can either use your words and ask them for a turn or you can play with something else and look to see when they put that toy down. When you don’t see anyone’s hands on that toy, you know it is available for you to play with.  *This one has worked particularly well with sibling based squabbles. Keener will now say to me, “Grace put it down. It’s available — I didn’t take it from her!” with a sense of pride that he now knows exactly when a toy is available for him to take.

What did you play with at school today?  Who else in your class likes playing with that toy? Sometimes toys can be shared, like playdough. There is usually enough playdough for anyone who wants to play with it. But sometimes there might be only one of something, like a truck. I know you love playing with that green truck at school and I’m guessing Will and Thomas also love playing with the green truck! Because that is a fun truck!

Lastly, deliberately model sharing. If Keener or Grace has something, I will make it a point to say Can I play with that toy please when you are finished? Can we please build with blocks together? The more they hear it, the more likely they are to use this language themselves. Give them the words you want them to use.

The Rise of the Threenager

Spitting Milk At Dinner

Keener has been dancing on my nerves. Two nights in a row, he spit a full mouthful of milk out at dinner. Of course, monkey see, monkey do. Grace followed with the exact same move, milk flying across the table and all down her front.

On night one of milk spitting, I instantly said, That’s disgusting! You can’t stay at the table with Grace and me if you aren’t using your manners. We have to teach Grace the right thing to do. You need to sit in the other room until I come back and get you.

I swiftly carried him to another room. I really wasn’t thinking of this as a “time out” – a natural consequence of spitting out milk is that you cannot sit at the dinner table. I also was simply trying to give myself a minute to figure out my next move without clobbering him. After about a minute, I went and got him. Keener, we swallow our milk. When you spit it, it makes a huge mess and you don’t grow big and strong. When we go back into the kitchen, show me what it looks like to swallow your milk. After giving myself that minute, I was able to think clearly and calmly and communicate with him without the extreme frustration.

On night two of milk spitting, I said something to the effect of Keener! Why did you do that? You usually have such wonderful manners. I’m so surprised you would do that! To which Keener replied, “Are you going to make me go sit by myself?”

In that moment it hit me —  he very much enjoyed my intense, crazy reaction from the night before. I therefore responded, No, you are not going in another room. Your milk is going to take a break. If you can’t drink it and swallow it, you won’t have any milk with dinner. Your milk is going to sit here and watch you use your manners to eat the rest of your dinner. “Are we going to have time to play after dinner?” No. Unfortunately, you will have to spend any free time after dinner cleaning up the milk that is all over the table. When you swallow your milk, you often have time to play after dinner but you didn’t make that choice tonight. Hopefully tomorrow night, you will swallow your milk.

I was dreading dinner the next night, and realized I needed to make a change. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do if he spit his milk out for a 3rd night in a row. Instead, I did the following:

  • I casually talked to Keener during the day about the importance of swallowing milk. Milk makes us grow strong and healthy. You need it to grow big strong muscles. When you take a sip of milk or water, you swallow it down your throat.
  • I casually talked to myself throughout the day about remaining calm. I need to save my “I’m going to lose my mind” reactions for things that truly are extreme – such as running into the street or playing ‘rough and tumble’ near the top of the stairs.
  • I named for Keener the one place where it is OK to spit – brushing his teeth. Most rules are not hard and fast. Instead, I have found that naming for Keener the places he can engage in certain behavior helps keep the behavior limited to those times (see post about naming options).
  • I changed up our dinner routine. I needed a different energy at dinner. I told Keener and Grace We are going to listen to music tonight at dinner, how fun is that? It allowed me to convince myself that ‘dinner time is fun’ (ha!), and allowed the kids to focus on the songs, not on poor behavior.

Night 3 was a success. Talking to him calmly before he had the opportunity to misbehave, talking to myself, and using music to change the mood all helped Keener swallow his milk. He now often says, “We don’t spit milk.” (see post about giving kids the language).

Of course in true almost 3 year old fashion, he got me again last night at dinner. He learned he can swish milk in his mouth like mouthwash and then let it drool out of his mouth which is technically not spitting. Oh almost threenager, you got me. Another good reminder to focus on what he can do instead of listing all of things he can’t do with his milk (spit it, drool it, blow bubbles, make art with it, pour it on the dog, etc.) Swallow your milk, my man.