As parents, we want to help our children learn about life, to help them learn how to get along with others, and to help them develop empathy for other people. Any parent with children has probably dealt with the issues of sharing and group play, either having a child who doesn’t want to share or excludes another child or having the child who is on the receiving end of one of those actions. As a parent, either situation is tough.
Parents of the child who is excluded or not allowed to play with something worry about the effects on their child. They worry about how they handle the situation. Are they teaching their child to stand up for herself? Is there something about their child which attracts bullies? If they don’t step in, are they encouraging their child to let others dictate to him.
Parents with a child who excludes others or refuses to share may worry about how they are perceived by other parents. They may wonder if they are handling the situation well. Should they be doing something more? Do other parents think badly of them? Are they raising a bully? Will their child learn empathy?
Some parents have taken a communal approach to the problem. Everyone must share with everyone else. Everyone must be allowed to play a game. On the surface, it seems like the problem is taken care. Everyone gets a turn. No one is left out. Parents on both sides of the issue can feel a sigh of relief. No one will think less of them for not handling the situation in a different way because every parents is dealing with it in the same exact way. They no longer have to worry about whether or not their child will bully or be bullied. It seems like a grand plan to many.
What does this really teach our children, though? This sameness, forced sharing and inclusion, is setting up our children for the very things we feared in the first place – that they might be so compliant to allow others to bully them or that they may conform to the majority, targeting those children who are different. Childhood is a time of learning and exlporation. They use play to figure out how to do things and relate to others. Through play they explore feelings and reactions and process them. Children are learning how to navigate the world around them.
Forced sharing and inclusion don’t alleviate the original problems. In fact, they often exacerbate them. Worried that someone will come and take a toy away in the name of sharing, many children will tend toward hoarding toys. They worry that they will not recive adequate time with an item they wish to play with or explore. They are learning that the most important aspects to their parents are compliancy and conformity.
If parents don’t force sharing or inclusion, it brings them back to the same problems. Are they doing enough about the situation? What are their children learning? Should they do something else? Should they even intervene? As parents, it’s our job to guide our children rather than force them along a particular direction. They are individuals who must find their own paths along their journeys.
So how do we, as parents, help our children deal with these situations? We talk to them. We point out that someone else would like a turn with a toy when they are finished. We point out that someone looks sad if she is wanting to play with others. Pointing out indicators and talking about how others may feel helps them to learn empathy. When a toy they want is being played with, we help them find something else or vocalize that they would like a turn when the person is finished. When they aren’t being played with, we remind them that sometimes they like to play by themselves or with only special friend. We listen to them, acknowledge them, validate them, and help them on their individual journey.