RIE in Real Life: What’s better than sharing?

I knew I had to write about this week’s story the moment it happened. It was so beautiful that I couldn’t resist sharing it…and it is such an important story because it is something that comes up over and over and over again when we are with young children in groups. And we all, myself included, need reminders of the benefits of slowing down around this topic. What am I talking about?


Yep, sharing can be tricky for toddlers for all of us, and for children who are over 2, and thus becoming more and more interested in figuring out how to engage other children, sharing can get even more tricky. That’s because one of the fastest ways to get someone’s attention is to take what they are holding onto and using. It can be tempting for us adults to jump in and police such interactions, but the thing is…the interactions are what we want children to have…we don’t need to rush through the conflict to get back to play…we need to keep everyone safe in their conflict, so they can learn to play without us hovering.

It’s hard. I’m not going to sugarcoat it. I’ve been doing it for decades now, and I do it 6 days a week, and it’s still hard. So, give yourself a break if you’re struggling with it. But keep in mind that the payoff…children figuring these things out for themselves…that’s so worth it. And even better, you sometimes get to see something even better than what you expected. It happened this week:

It was a beautiful but muggy morning by the cricket fields at Woodley Park. Families trickled in and children began to play. I noticed one child in particular was super interested in what other children were doing. She would see them playing intently with a toy and she would hurry over and try to take the object of attention/attraction. Other children responded in a variety of ways…some held on and yelled, some let go and cried, some followed her and tried to get things back from her.

How do I know this behavior was because she was interested in other children and not just a small tyrant? Because she would rather quickly lose interest in the object after the interaction or if the other child didn’t really engage. And then she’d play for a few moments by herself before noticing another child and the cycle would start again.

Some people might look at it like she was not doing a great job sharing and maybe we should shut that down or lean into our sportscasting…maybe even head it off at the pass before she even got to the other child. I didn’t do that, though, because there’s value in children learning how to hold onto what they are interested in, to get things back (or figure out something else to do) when they lose things. And there’s value in children learning how it makes others feel when they take away their toys.

At any rate, this happened a couple of times…with a ball, with stuffed kitties, with cups…but then…then she noticed the silicone stars.

Before I describe what happened, let me linger on these stars, pictured above, for a moment. In particular, what these stars mean to one of the children in class. He loves them. He delights in them. He seeks them out to play with them…marveling at their size, their shape, their colors. He twirls them, he holds them, he carries them around with him. He even tries to bring them to snack!

On this particular day, he arrived a little late, but quickly found the stars. I overheard him from across the circle, happily chirping to one of his mothers about the stars and showing them to her. I smiled because he hadn’t been in class for almost a month, but he was still so happy to find those stars. A few minutes later, he brought them to me to show me. He lined them up in my hand and we both looked at them. And then…the child who’d been experimenting with taking things, well, took some of those stars.

It was so hard! Both children really wanted all three of the stars, and they went back and forth, pulling the stars back from one another, clumsily holding all 3, but dropping one or two…that the other child would swoop in and grab. The little boy would mournfully reach out, saying “orange (or blue or pink) star” as the little girl held them away from him. When he’d reach, she’d shake her hands…not quite hitting him, but not holding still either. Eventually, she sought refuge in her mother’s lap. The little boy looked sadly after her. I asked him if he wanted to go talk about it with the little girl. He said “stars” as he walked over and knelt down in front of them. He reached for a star, and she grabbed his hand and pulled it toward her. And then…

He smiled.

She laughed.

Then, they remembered the stars. She started to kick her foot out…this time, he grasped her foot. She stilled. We all held our breath. He gently stroked her foot. And that was it. The stars were forgotten. The connection was established.

And yes, that connection continued through class….they played together like that a couple more times…each doing their own thing for a while before circling back to playing their footsie game again. We didn’t have to teach them how to share. We just had to keep them safe long enough for them to discover one another and play together on their own terms.