Any time two or more children are gathered, the concept of sharing is bound to come up. Young children lack impulse control and simply take what they want. Or, if they do have the forethought to ask a friend with a toy, they are often met with a response like: “No! Mine!” Bickering ensues. As adults, we sense the rising tensions and step in before things get physical. Telling a child to share usually means forcing them to give up what they are playing with, or timing them so that everyone gets an equal amount of time playing with whatever toy is in question.
We worry that if we don’t force children to share in this way, they will grow up to be selfish adults. Unfortunately, this kind of sharing isn’t really sharing at all. Genuine sharing is a beautiful expression of giving. It is something that bonds people together and builds community. It is not something that can or should be forced upon anyone. When an adult forces a child to give something they are using to someone else, we aren’t helping that child experience the joy of making someone else happy. Instead, we may be unwittingly causing one child to resent the other. Even worse, we are telling that child, “Your work isn’t important.”
As adults, we would never expect someone to share something that they are using before they are done with it. If my friend is reading a book that I want to read, I say “Can I read that when you are done?” If my neighbor has a lawn mower and I don’t, I don’t go over and take theirs. I ask them if I can borrow it, and they get to say yes or no, as well as decide when they want to let me use it.
In our classroom, we want to see real, genuine, sharing. We also want everyone to value and respect each other’s work. We let children know that it’s okay to take a long turn with a toy. If a child wants something that another child is using, we tell them to ask for it, but whoever is using the item gets to decide if they want to give it away. If they are still using the item, we teach them to say “You can have it when I’m done.” Children understand this concept very easily. If they are feeling particularly anxious about whether or not they will get a turn with something, we teach them to say “When do you think you will be done?” or “Will you let me know when you are done?” The most amazing thing is that, most of the time, even very young children will actually take the toy and give it to their friend when they are done!
The phrase “You can have it when I’m done” works so wonderfully because each person is getting what they want. One child is getting the assurance that they will get the thing, and the other child’s time and autonomy are respected. Sometimes children will become upset if they think a friend is taking too long to finish with a toy. We reiterate that at preschool, it’s OK to take long turns and that one way we respect each other is by understanding that sometimes someone needs to use an object for a long time. Children really do crave the connection that comes from sharing and making their friends happy, so they will almost always naturally end their turn in time to let their friend play. There is no shame because we work hard to create an environment that children feel is just and fair. If a child has to wait until the next playtime to get their turn, other children remember and respect that.