In the dance class I’ve written about before and that I help teach, the kids sometimes use colorful scarves as props during freestyle dancing. It’s really fun to watch them swirl and twirl, unless you’re watching littlest Julianne*, where you wonder how long it’ll take her to accidentally wrap up her feet and wipe out. The less fun part, however, is handing out the orange, yellow, green, red, blue, and purple scarves before the dancing begins. Almost all the kids are fine with any color, but a few want only purple. There aren’t enough purple scarves to go around, nor can two kids share the same scarf at the same time. When kids want the same thing, dance class quickly morphs into a crash course in economics, whereby some struggle with supply and demand. Scarcity makes the heart grow fonder.
When I hand out the scarves, it works best when I’m playful about it. I reach into the bag as if it were a magic hat full of rabbits. I act shocked and amazed each time a new color comes out, much to the delight of the kids. They get caught up enough in the game that they’re usually unconcerned with what color they get. If someone does get upset, some sincere active listening and empathy usually help them process and move on quickly. “Yes, I see how much you wanted the purple. You feel disappointed.” The child invariably affirms that I’ve understood correctly and then moves on with her dancing. If she’s still upset, although it rarely happens, she can process as long as she needs to.
With that in mind, I’d like to challenge the notion that if you give something to one child, all the other kids will want the same thing.
I just don’t buy it. Maybe it’ll be an issue for some. But most of the time, it’s really not a big deal to them, at least not for age four (or so) and above. Many kids already have the emotional intelligence to delay gratification. They already know from their life experience that they’re likely to get a turn with the purple scarf, or whatever the object of their affection may be, at some point.
And most of them know exactly what to do about it if they want the same thing that another child has. The adults around them model sharing and taking turns every day, and like everything else, kids pick up on what they observe. Learning to share happens naturally in its own time.
In fact, early childhood is a fantastic time for kids to practice taking turns and sharing on their own terms.
Case in point: After I’d handed out the scarves one day, Amelia, who’s one of the youngest in the group of 4-8 year olds, requested for my attention. The music and dancing had already started. At her request, though, I kneeled down so she could whisper in my ear. She inquired politely, “I noticed that Josie has a purple scarf. I’d really like to take a turn with it. May I ask her if she’d trade with me?”
Josie was just beyond my earshot, but I watched Amelia walk up to her and engage her in a quick and friendly exchange. I watched Josie smile and nod. The girls traded scarves; one smiling because she’d gotten the color she wanted, and the other smiling because she got to help a friend. They worked it out. She shared. Happily. Easily.
I’ve seen this negotiation of “sharing” happen just as often with boys as girls; in dance class and on playgrounds. I could’ve just as easily written this piece about a group of boys working together to build a skeleton from individual x-ray images during science class a few weeks ago. However, it’s less desirable to write about yanking on femurs.
When kids want the same thing at the same time, they can usually work it out. Adults don’t need to interfere. We can trust them to negotiate for themselves, often without any mediation. We don’t need to worry that we’re setting a bad precedent if we give a child something he or she requests.
Provided that we’re using common sense and modeling courtesy to others, we can relax.
We don’t need to force so-called sharing or taking turns. Children do it quite naturally most of the time. Policing is far less important than giving them the chance to practice. And when better to practice than in childhood?
* Names changed for privacy.