Toddlers Spontaneously Share: Adult Intervention Unneeded

February 15, 2011 · 26 comments

Children sharing at RIE playdate

The kids loved their RIE playdate!

Itook my boys to a La Leche League meeting last week, and my son took toys from everyone.

It was a disaster. I was stressed, the boys were stressed, and everyone around us was stressed. One of the mothers confronted me about making my oldest son share, and all I could think to do was mumble something about how I didn’t do that.

Yes, that’s right. I don’t force my kids to share.

It doesn’t always work well when we’re out and about, but at home, the change is tremendous. The boys, who I often felt like a referee for, get along. Instances of hitting, smacking, and other physical altercations have gone down.  A lot.

In recent months I’ve dabbled with RIE — a philosophy treating children as “capable people deserving of respect”, as described by the mother of the movement, Magda Gerber. I’ve backed off on the playground, set up routines to get everyone in the house more sleep, and learned how to talk through situations instead of intervening.

Those experiences have been incredibly rewarding and enlightening. As I observe more and do less, my relationship with my children has changed from one of intervention to one of trust, and it’s absolutely fascinating to discover what they’re capable of.

One thing I noticed about the playground was how well children played together when their parents were otherwise occupied. They traded toys, took turns on the stairs up the slide, and waited patiently at the top to let others slide down.

My boys have mastered their social skills at the playground, but we’ve had more difficulty at indoor playgroups. With the close proximity to the action, it’s harder not to intervene.

I wanted to try it, though, so I asked my local facebook friends if anyone wanted to come over for a RIE playgroup. I linked to this article by Janet Lansbury that describes what I wanted to do. An acquaintance with two daughters the same ages as my boys said she’d try it, and we discussed over the phone the basic ground rules:

1. We would observe our children.

2. If there was a dispute over a toy, we would move closer and describe what was happening without judgment or intervening: “You’re sad because John has the toy now” “Mary is sad because she doesn’t have the toy anymore”.

3. Touching (to include grabbing) is allowed; hitting, pinching, biting, etc. are not and would be dealt with by moving close and saying something like “I’m not going to let you hit Katie”.

I was excited but nervous, and told the boys that friends would come over today. My oldest was thrilled and ran to the door every few minutes waiting for them to arrive.

They came in and started exploring. My friend and I stepped back. Her daughter picked up a toy, and my son immediately grabbed it away. My friend and I looked at each other, held our breaths, and didn’t say a word. Her daughter looked at him for a minute, then found another toy. He went over, looked at the toy she picked up, showed her the one he had, and they sat down together with a pile of blocks and played.

Neither my friend or I could stop smiling. We spent an hour and a half together, and there was no screaming or crying. A few toys were taken back and forth, but the children worked it out themselves. I got my camera out to capture the four of them (2 are 27 months and 2 are 10 months) playing at the abacus. The older two sat together counting, and the younger two watched and touched the beads. There was no pushing, shoving, hitting, or grabbing. It was amazing.

In many situations it’s difficult to buck conventional wisdom, but in this case I’m really glad I took the chance. Sharing is emphasized so strongly, but young children don’t understand possessions or have the self-control to keep from grabbing things. When we force them to do things they’re not ready for, we don’t acknowledge the capabilities they have in place for working out conflicts on their own.

I gave my boys an opportunity to figure out social interactions, and I wasn’t sure how it would turn out. The experience this morning was priceless, though. They exceeded all my hopes. If I hadn’t given them the chance, I never would have known how much they could do.

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