Slow down, and then slow down a little more.
Some of Magda Gerber’s most famous words of wisdom. And, like much of her advice, it sounds so simple, but the practice can be sooo hard. How’s that saying go?…the days are long, but the years are short? Absolutely. And in those long slow days, it can be hard to slow ourselves down to wait…wait for your child to learn to roll over, then to crawl, then to figure out how to sit, to stand, to walk, run and climb…but all of that happens in a matter of months…short months filled with long days of waiting and watching.
And just like your child doesn’t learn to roll, sit, stand, or walk in a single day (though some children do wait to demonstrate those milestone moments when they feel they are completely competent), there is a lot about child development that takes time to fully develop.
Did you know that children don’t START to develop the impulse control to keep themselves from doing something they ‘know they shouldn’t do’ until they are 3.5-4 years old? That you also can’t expect them to begin to reliably share or take turns before those ages? If not, you’re not alone! A large study done by Zero to Three in 2016 found that 43% of parents believe that children can reliably share before the age of 2, and 56% of parents thought impulse control was established before the age of 3.
And I get it…children seem so competent…and they are! They understand almost everything we say; they can listen and follow simple directions. They definitely notice cause and effect. But as Magda said, we underestimate babies and we overestimate toddlers. And that’s what leads to what Mona Delahooke, author of Beyond Behaviors , presents as an ‘expectation gap’.
Sharing is complex, especially for people who are as in the moment as young children are. It takes a lot of time and practice to get to the place where they can reliably share.
Let me share (ha!) a story of a group of children’s journey toward sharing. On Wednesday mornings I have a class for children approaching and just over the age of 2, and lately two children have been very much into my small cars: holding them, carrying them, lining them up, and hooking them together so they can drive them in a train. And as these children are all still very young, most of their play is still parallel…in that they notice what others are doing and sometimes repeat it by themselves, but most often are still doing their own thing…or they notice what others are doing and decide they want to do it, too, so they figure out a way to commandeer the play objects (either by biding their time and collecting toys when discarded or by simply taking (or trying to take) toys out of other children’s hands).
And here’s the part that can make people uncomfortable…especially the 56% of people who think children can share before the age of 3…I don’t stop the taking of toys. Now, don’t misunderstand my statement here: no, I don’t stop children from taking toys, but I do make sure children stay safe (I will not let children hurt one another), and I do sportscast for both children (“You are holding onto that toy; it looks like you’re not done! Oh, you wanted it back!” etc). The reason for this is that this toy taking is actually part of socialization…figuring out how to be in community with others…figuring out how to get your needs met while also being part of a group. And just like toddlers tend to stumble and fall when learning to walk…while practicing the movements…children need time to stumble and fall…to practice …learning how to share.
Back to the story. There were two children who each really enjoyed linking the cars together and driving them in a little train. Well, one of them first had to learn to link them, which was a hard process for him because he was used to having a loving relative link the cars together for him …so he didn’t have much frustration tolerance to practice linking the cars together on his own. But over the course of a couple of weeks, he got a little more skilled and a little more patient as he worked on putting the cars together…but his time to work on putting the cars together was limited by the other child who was also interested in the cars and who snagged them whenever he noticed the first child was distracted. And so there was a, quite literal, push-pull over the cars.
It didn’t go well at first.
One child’s go-to strategy was to lash out and hit (which I blocked), and then to grab and pull on the toy (which I didn’t block). This strategy morphed into pulling on the cars and crying, still trying to hit…then to just pulling on the cars….and one remarkable week, they practiced trading for the cars…and then finally one week the child who’d been working on linking them finally mastered it, and didn’t protest or even look back when the other child came and took the cars away. During each of these interactions, I came close, tried to keep children safe, articulated everyone’s feelings and gave language they could use. What I didn’t do was require them to share.
It took a month. A full month…before that conflict was resolved. And is it fully resolved? Probably not. Do I expect there to never be a conflict over cars again? Not a chance. But these are the steps that children need to go through to get there.
Children have to experience ownership before they can truly share. They have to witness the upset that others have when they take or withhold things. Their brains have to develop so they can have patience…and be able to think about the future. As adults we need to recognize that both children in a conflict have very valid points of view…one wants to keep working on what they are working on and the other wants to start working on it. And it’s not necessary or helpful for us to intervene and solve it for them…just like learning to walk, children need to learn this skill on their own. And it takes time. We’re there to keep them safe, but they learn on their own.
One more quick story:
A caregiver I’m training took her newfound knowledge to the park last week. She noticed an acquaintance of hers trying to force her child to share her toy stroller with another child. My student didn’t get into brain development or quote research, though; she just used a real-world example: she said, “oh I really like your bag, can I have it?” Met with a “who do you think you are?” look, my student said, “oh it’s your bag from home? But it has diapers in it, I might need it. You have to share it. You brought it to the park to share.” Then she paused to let it sink in, and continued “She might want to share, she might not. She doesn’t have to, though.” Now, my student knew this nanny, and so she knew she could get away with this playful salvo (and it worked and actually started a really good conversation). But it’s a good thought…does it ever seem to you that we sometimes hold children to a higher standard than we do ourselves? (It’s another version of the expectation gap, no?)
When’s the last time you shared something…what motivated you to do so?