Turn-taking Can Teach Children to Share

by KAREN COREKIN-DeLaMER, Education and Community Relations Coordinator, Northern Door Children’s Center
[email protected]

Dear Karen,

My wife and I are the parents of two boys, ages 4 and 2. We spend a lot of time with my sister and her son, who is 7. When all three boys play together, they often get into fights over the toys. 

I feel bad because my nephew is usually willing to share, but my sons are not. I talk to my boys all the time about the importance of sharing with each other and with their cousin, but nothing I say makes any difference. 

What can we do to help them understand that part of being kind to others is about sharing their toys?

– Just Want My Kids to Be Kind

Dear Just Want My Kids to Be Kind,

First, let me say how wonderful it is that your family is teaching all the children about kindness. Recognizing their own feelings and the feelings of others is often children’s first step toward understanding kindness and empathy. These are important social and emotional skills to learn.

Sharing can be tricky for young children. From their point of view, we are asking them to give up something that belongs to them, with no guarantee of when it will be returned. Although the prevailing wisdom says that most children are developmentally ready to understand what sharing means by age 4, each child’s development is different. Some children feel comfortable sharing by 4, but others may take longer, often up to age 8. Development varies greatly from child to child, and this is very typical. 

The ability to share takes time to develop, but children as young as 18 months understand the concept of taking turns. Turn-taking is a practical strategy to use until your children are old enough to understand how to share voluntarily. It takes some practice to say, “Let’s take turns” rather than “Let’s share,” but once everyone gets the hang of it, taking turns really works! 

When you teach turn-taking, a timer becomes your best friend. Whether you use your phone or some kind of kitchen timer, be sure you always have one on hand. Armed with your trusty timer, you can begin the next time your boys start fighting over a toy. 

If there’s any crying, get in there to help them calm down. Then take the toy they’re fighting over, get their attention and make the magic statement, “Let’s take turns.” Go on to explain that each of them will have the toy for a certain amount of time, and then it will pass on to the next boy. Young children won’t understand what five minutes means, but it gives them a defined period for waiting their turn. 

Next, decide who will have the first turn. Eventually they may be able to decide for themselves, but for now, you create the order. Give the toy to the one who’ll go first, and set the timer. Remind the other two that they will also have a turn. Here’s where “first, then” statements are very helpful. For example, first Zach will have a turn; then Jacob and Tristan will have a turn. 

Set the timer, and let the boys see it. As the parent, you will be the best judge of how long each turn should be, but usually, three to five minutes is a good place to start. The boys who are waiting may even want to watch the timer, which can help to keep their minds off the waiting.

Once time is up, you’ll need to facilitate giving the toy to the next boy because the one who’s giving up the toy may not be happy. To give that child some control, offer a choice: “Would you like me to give the toy to your brother, or would you like to give it to him?” 

It may take some patient negotiations, but eventually the toy will go to the next child and the process will begin again. Repeat the “first, then” statement with the new turn-taking arrangement, and reset the timer for the next round.

As with any behavior change, learning to take turns requires practice, repetition and consistency, and you or another adult will need to facilitate the process until the children learn it. Eventually, they will probably start asking you to set the timer for them, or they may begin giving the toy to the next one in line before the time is up and without your intervention. 

Stay with the process, and soon you’ll find that your boys are experts at taking turns, which is definitely kindness in action.

Karen Corekin-DeLaMer holds degrees in elementary, special and early-childhood education. She has been a teacher, administrator and parent educator since 1984 and is the education and community-relations coordinator for Northern Door Children’s Center in Sister Bay. Email your questions to her at [email protected].