Have you found yourself saying to your child “be nice; share your toys.” We’ve heard other parents say it, so it must be the right thing to say. If children are squabbling, it’s so easy to say “Jack, you have to share, remember!” However, sharing is not always appropriate, and we shouldn’t expect our children to always be ready to comply. An example I would offer is this.

Jack is sitting at the table working on a puzzle. It is quite a hard puzzle and he’s been working on it for quite a while. This particular puzzle has far more pieces in it than any he has finished before. Finally he is down to just three pieces left to fit in the puzzle, when along comes Sally saying “I want to help.” Sally picks up a puzzle piece and is about to insert it when Jack yells ‘No!” and grabs it back.

A parent or teacher seeing this might well say, “Jack, you have to share.” But this is not an appropriate sharing opportunity. Jack is on the brink of a major achievement and wants the completion of the puzzle to be his own work.

So what is the right adult reaction?  Gather facts. Let Jack explain. That’s all it takes for an adult to realize this is important to Jack. Explain the situation to Sally. Once the puzzle is done, Jack may well be ready to do it again with Sally’s help, or turn the puzzle over to Sally entirely.

In my preschool, rather than telling children they have to share, we would encourage Sally to ask if she can help, and respect Jack’s answer if he says no. If Sally really wants to work on the puzzle, then her next question should be, “can I do it when you’re finished?” And the problem is usually solved.

So often adults are ready to jump and fix things without giving young children an opportunity to work things out. But children need the tools first. They need to know it’s OK to say no. They need to practice using the right vocabulary to resolve the problem. Our job as parents and teachers is to help and guide children to become problem-solvers, and resist the temptation to do everything for them.

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