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Now Is the Right Time!
As a parent or someone in a parenting role, you play an essential role in your child’s success. There are intentional ways to grow a healthy parent-child relationship, and helping your child grow their collaboration, turn-taking, and healthy friendship skills is a perfect opportunity.
Children ages 5-10 are in the process of learning about themselves, their strengths and limitations, why they feel the way they do, and how they relate to others. This is also known as their self-awareness.1 They come to better understand themselves through their interactions with you, their teachers, and their peers. Learning to share “stuff” in social play allows your child to naturally practice cooperation, negotiation, inclusion, communication, flexibility, conflict management, and diversity appreciation. Children utilize toys, art supplies, games, household objects, and more to exercise their social, emotional, and cognitive skills.
Yet, there are challenges. Sensitivity over ownership and sharing is normal in your child’s development. Turn taking and sharing can be a challenge. When your five-year-old rips a ball away from a neighborhood friend yelling “Mine!” it can cause upset in their relationship. Learning how to connect with and care about others and their property is essential to your child’s development. Learning how you can support their growing friendships and their taking responsibility for the care of their possessions can help you feel more competent in your role as a parent. The steps below include specific, practical strategies to prepare you to help your child through the ups and downs of growing healthy friendships, learning to collaborate, taking turns, and sharing.
Whether it’s your five-year-old breaking down because their friend won’t share their Lego set or your ten-year-old obsessing over the presents they want for their birthday, your child’s relationship with “stuff” can become a daily challenge. Your child’s emerging ability to engage with their peers and become part of a social community is essential to their development.
Today, in the short term, sharing can create
- opportunities for your child to build relationships with others;
- a growing sense of care for others;
- a sense of confidence that your child can manage a certain level of difficulty; and
- a strong connection between the two of you as you navigate these challenges together.
Tomorrow, in the long term, your child
- develops empathy;
- helps them see others’ perspectives;
- shifts their focus away from self to contributing to the well-being of their community; and
- builds skills in self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationships, and responsible decision making.
This five-step process helps you and your child through the ups and downs of growing healthy friendship skills like turn taking and sharing. It also builds important skills in your child. The same process can be used to address other parenting issues as well (learn more about the process).
These steps are done best when you and your child are not tired or in a rush.
Step 1. Get Your Child Thinking by Getting Their Input
You can get your child thinking about friendships and sharing by asking them open-ended questions. You’ll help prompt your child’s thinking. You’ll also begin to better understand their thoughts, feelings, and challenges related to friendships so that you can address them. In gaining input, your child
- has the opportunity to become more aware of how they are thinking and feeling and understand when the cause of their upset is sharing related;
- can begin to formulate what it means to care for and keep property; and
- can think through and problem solve through any challenges they may encounter ahead of time.
- Engage your child in a conversation about sharing and turn taking. You might start by asking: “How can you take turns with your playthings?”
- Practice actively listening to your child’s thoughts, feelings, and worries about sharing and friendships. Paraphrasing what you heard your child say can ensure you are fully understanding what your child is communicating. Paraphrasing is echoing back to the person a summary of what they’ve said to check how accurate your listening is and also to confirm to the speaker that you have heard them. It may seem awkward at first. But, this is an important way for you to check your own understanding while simultaneously teaching children how to listen for comprehension. A conversation might go something like this:
- Child: “I shared my art supplies with Amanda, and she messed them all up.”
- Paraphrase: “So I hear you did share your art supplies with Amanda, but you didn’t like what she did with them.”
- If you hear a subtext of feeling, as in this example, you can also reflect back the feeling implied. Reflect the feeling: “I get the sense you were upset and disappointed that Amanda made a mess of your materials. Is that right?”
- Engage your child in a conversation about friendship.
- “How can you start new friendships?”
- “What does a good friend look like?”
- “What do you think it means to be a good friend?”
- “What would you like others to do to reach out to you?” (Do they want to be included in games or fun activities?) Then ask your child, “How can you adopt those qualities and actions? How can you be the one to include others?”
- And, when disputes over stuff are involved, “How can you act as a good friend without giving away things that might have significant value and importance to you?”
- Grab a large newsprint sheet of paper or poster board. Ask your child, “Who’s your favorite hero, book character, or movie character?” Have them draw the hero on the poster board. Now list the many characteristics that a hero might possess in being a good friend. “Are they kind? Do they help others? Do they accept others for who they are? What stuff is important for them to have and what stuff is important for them to share?”
- Sometimes feeling the need for friends, especially when they feel like they don’t have many, can make a child feel alone, vulnerable, and different. Yet, “stuff” can get in the way and create arguments. Reassure your child that it’s normal to disagree with friends over things but that people will always be more important than possessions.
Your worries are not always your child’s worries. Listen closely to what is most concerning to your child without projecting your own thoughts, concerns, and feelings.
Be sure you talk about stressful friendship challenges at a calm time when you are not stressed!
For nine-year-olds and ten-year olds, friendships may be a sensitive topic. Remove the spotlight from your child by discussing the meaning of friendship as a whole family at a family dinner. Include all family members’ perspectives. Talk about what you value in a friend. Discuss how you try to act as a good friend. Talk about how you go about making new friends. Talk about where possessions fall into that mix.
Step 2. Teach New Skills by Interactive Modeling
Social connections are vital to your child’s learning and development. Learning about developmental milestones can help you better understand the role of friendships in your child’s life and the challenges they may face.2
- Five-year-olds have grand and vivid imaginations and can construct elaborate play themes. Because they are working hard to understand the rules of school, rules and routines are necessary to help them feel successful (and not chaotic). In fact, those rules and routines facilitate play with peers. Some will “tattle” on peers when they do not get their way or see another break a rule. Rest assured that this is how they internalize understanding the rules themselves — by attempting to enforce them with others. They may struggle with turn taking and get into conflicts over toys. With limited attention spans, conflicts also tend not to last long.
- Six-year-olds can be ambitious and thrive on encouragement. They can be highly competitive with peers. This tendency can lead them into dishonesty, bossiness, and becoming critical of others. They are attempting to internalize their own social rules and the criticism of others helps them define their own boundaries. They may still have a blanket or stuffed friend that is their comfort object. Kindness, connection, and inclusion are important to emphasize at this age.
- Seven-year-olds need consistency and may worry more when schedules are chaotic and routines change. They tend to be moody and require reassurance from adults. They can become extremely loyal to one friend or claim a “best friend.” Because friends will change (and perhaps rapidly), building friendship skills and particularly staying kind to others amidst changes will help your child. They are also becoming more capable of caring for their toys and possessions, so at this age, they can increasingly organize, clean, and care for their stuff.
- Eight-year-olds’ interest and investment in friendships and peer approval elevate and become as important as the teacher’s approval. They are more skilled at cooperation and may form larger friendship groups. They are more resilient when they make mistakes. They have a greater social awareness of local and world issues, so they may be concerned about the news or events outside of your community. They are highly social and full of creative ideas. They may introduce new toys or games they want because they see all their friends at school have those items.
- Nine-year-olds can be highly competitive and critical of themselves and others. They may worry about who is in the “in” and “out” crowds and where they fit in friendship groups. They may tend to exclude others in order to feel included in a group. It’s a good time to encourage inclusion and kindness toward a diverse range of others. As they become more aware of their peers’ evaluation of them, they may become more concerned with their appearance and interests and change those or hide them to gain their peers’ approval. Clothing and accessories may become more important at this age.
- Ten-year-olds have an increased social awareness so that they can try to figure out the thoughts and feelings of others. There is much more of a give and take in friendships with listening, talking, and compromising. With their rising social awareness also comes a newfound worry about what peers are thinking of them (for example, “He’s staring at me. I think he doesn’t like me.”). They tend to be able to work through conflicts and resolve fairness issues with friends more rapidly. They may be challenged by wanting to play with friends who are mostly on and/or only entertained by screens or are narrowing their play interests to one area.
Teaching is different than just telling. Teaching builds basic skills, grows problem-solving abilities, and sets your child up for success. Teaching also involves modeling and practicing the positive behaviors you want to see, promoting skills, and preventing problems.
- Model turn taking. Children can learn to take turns and simultaneously learn valuable social and emotional skills like impulse control, delaying gratification, genuine altruism (giving something to another because it’s a good thing to do), and trust. In turn taking, your child decides when they are finished with an object and passes it on to another who desires it.
- Turn taking does require teaching and practicing. So, at a family dinner, call it out when you are taking turns with the butter, ketchup, or salt. Talk aloud about what you are doing and this will serve as a model for your child. Point to yourself and say, “My turn to use the ketchup.” Point to another and say, “It’s your turn.”
- Proactively teach turn taking by initiating some family games in which your child will have the chance to participate in turn taking.
- Because children need to learn and practice how to own a plaything, care for it, and then, collaborate with others with it, children need to individually own that thing. In other words, in households where there are numerous siblings, much can be shared. But, ensure that each child owns one plaything that is theirs alone. More is not better and sometimes, more playthings – if there are too many – make it difficult to learn skills because of the clutter. Offering moderation in their ownership of playthings gives them the opportunity to practice valuable skills.
- Developmentally, your child has to understand ownership before they understand and can actively share. Young children can take turns, but sharing when it’s enforced by adults does not work. Directing a child to share or even taking away a toy in the moment of play and giving it to another sends the message that the child with the toy has no rights, is not trusted, and has no real ownership. That child might feel punished but not sure why. This can break down trust between parent and child. This tool offers constructive alternatives.
- Organize together. In order for your child to respect their possessions as well as the items that make up your household, they need to be involved in the care, organization, and keeping of those things. Abilities to contribute and take responsibility for household items differs according to age.
- Establish some rules for your own organization. Here are a few suggestions:
- Every toy or children’s item should have a consistent “home.”
- Every “home” (bin, basket, drawer) should be clearly labeled.
- One or two sacred toys or objects (transitional/attachment objects) will be put away in a specially designated spot when friends come to play so that they are not harmed. This removes the chance of what can be a source of upset for your child.
- Keep open spaces in play areas. Too much clutter or even too many toys is not conducive to play. Children need open, well-organized spaces to engage in pretend play.
- Relationships come before stuff. If parents are consistent in looking out for and caring for relationships, their child will as well. This can also go along with the rule: “Friends before screens.” If friends are knocking at the door to play or your child wants more screen time, friends will take priority.
- Do a regular clean out. Put boxes together to donate to local preschools or nonprofits. Think about what toys, books, or games your child has outgrown? How can they give to another child who might use it? These are the roots of moral development and compassion. Service begins at home, and you can perpetuate this kind of thinking with this practice.
- Set up play spaces for success. There’s much parents can learn from teachers who have thought through and mastered the art of organizing a classroom for learning. If you have a family room, a playroom, or other recreation space in which your child will be playing regularly, you may want to consider the following questions.
- Is there a hard surface that can get messy and marked up for drawing and writing?
- Are there designated bins or other organizational structures for art supplies?
- Is there a quiet space to remove yourself from the action like a beanbag chair or a quiet corner with books and blankets?
- Is there a space for your child to get out toys and play on the floor?
- Is there a home (bin, basket, other) for every toy to be placed in when the play is finished?
- Are they clearly labeled and placed at a height which your child can reach?
- Are there cleared pathways to walk through safely? All furniture and materials should have a clear purpose and use and also be safe for children’s exploration.
- Establish a consistent clean-up routine. Consider:
- When your child is around the house playing, when will they clean up?
- Will you have them clean up with friends or without?
- Will cleanup be five minutes before friends have to go home or will it be fifteen minutes? Decide ahead and discuss as a family what makes the most sense. Seek your child’s input.
- Teach your child to collaborate using collaborative games. Collaboration requires a number of social and emotional skills including self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and, at times, responsible decision making. It can promote inclusion and strengthen trusting connections among participants.
- As your child cultivates friendships, plays, and takes turns with toys, they’ll surely run into conflicts. Offer practice with some problem-solving tools so that when arguments occur, you don’t have to play referee. Your child will have skills. Here are some problem-solving tools to try:
- Teach collaborative problem solving with the traffic light model. Play as a game first to teach and offer practice in each of the steps. Stop at the red light. Breathe and calm down. At the yellow light, think about the problem and identify your feelings. Then, talk about ideas for solving the problem together. When you agree on an idea to try, it’s a green light. Go! Try out your solution.
- When your child is in the uncomfortable position of disagreeing or arguing with another, it can be difficult for them to know how to respond in ways that won’t harm themself or others. That’s why teaching and practicing “I-messages” can help. This statement works effectively from partner to partner, from parent to child, and from child to child. Here’s an example: I feel _______(insert feeling word) when you ________ (name the words or actions that upset you) because___________.
- This helps the individual take responsibility for their own role and feelings in the problem while constructively communicating what they are experiencing. Here’s how it might sound if a parent is using it with a child: “I feel frustrated and upset when you grab my cell phone, because I feel like you don’t care that I am using it.”
- Gather a few stuffed friends or action figures around to teach this skill. Perhaps Luke Skywalker Lego Mini-Figure battles Darth Vader Lego Minifigure each day in your living room. Use that play interaction to teach an I-message. For example, Luke (you) might say, “I feel upset when you slash at me with your lightsaber, because I don’t want to get hurt.”
- Follow up when your child makes mistakes to help them repair harm. A critical step in teaching your child about friendships is learning how to repair harm, whether physical or emotional, when they’ve caused it. Mistakes are a critical aspect of social learning. Everyone has moments when they hurt another. But, it’s that next step that they take that matters in healing emotional wounds and repairing the friendship. Your child will need support and practice to repair their relationships.
- Grow empathy. In addition to developing these essential skills that lead your child to share, there are beliefs and attitudes that you can promote to help them as well. For example, when your child uses definitive language like, “It’s mine,” you may respond with:
- “Sometimes it can feel really hard to share, but then it feels good that someone else got to enjoy the toy too.”
- “Do you remember last time when sharing seemed hard? You took a deep breath and were able to do it.”
- “I wonder if we can do something that will make it easier to share.”
- Help your child notice and name their own cues, so they can develop self-awareness and learn to trust their own feelings. This includes describing and naming the pride they may feel when they have gotten through a challenging situation. Pointing out the resilience that they demonstrate will help them notice it and know it is there when the next challenge arises.
- Use “Show me…” statements. When a child learns a new ability, they are eager to show it off! Give them that chance. Say, “Show me how you can take turns with your sister while playing.” Set a goal for a playtime and then reflect afterward on how it went.
- Practice turn taking! When you are actively attempting to teach turn taking, it’s important to create opportunities to practice in order to reinforce new skills. Set a goal for how many different practice sessions you want to schedule for one week and stick to it. Here are various fun and simple games that can easily be played at home that could involve turn taking.
- Ball play – Kicking or roll the ball back and forth.
- Hide and seek – Take turns hiding and seeking each round.
- Bake – Make something yummy and take turns measuring and pouring ingredients.
- Hopscotch – Take turns hopping down the numbers.
- Bike obstacle course – Create an easy obstacle course on your driveway for their bikes. Use cones or sticks or stuffed animals that they must ride around. Maybe they have to pick up a stuffed animal on the other side of a series of rocks. This can be easy and fun!
- Animal bowling – Take turns rolling the ball and knocking down stuffed animals.
- Music making – Put on some music and get out one instrument to play. Allow the children to take turns banging the drum or humming on the kazoo to the music.
- Games (Candyland, Match Game, Chutes and Ladders) – Take turns rolling the dice, advancing your piece, or turning over cards to make matches in these or other classic board games.
- Practice brainstorming to help your child learn how to create many solutions to a problem. Not only does this kind of practice promote creative thinking skills, but it also assures your child that they always have a choice. They are never stuck. Indeed innovators come up with many varied solutions to one problem. So, practice! In brainstorming, no idea is wrong. All ideas are welcome, and creativity is encouraged.
- Create lists on your white or chalk board for fun. Post questions like:
- “How many ice cream flavors can you name?”
- “How many high energy songs can you name?”
- “How many types of birds can you name?”
- Then try problems like:
- “How many different ways could we attract animals to our backyard?”
- “How many different ways could we make Dad smile?”
- “How many different ways could we arrange our furniture?”
- Schedule playdates. Playdates can become invaluable practice for your child. Playdates build connections and help your child practice the skills you’ve taught them. When it comes to figuring out who to invite over and when, follow your child’s lead. Who does your child talk about at home? That’s a perfect place to begin.
- Discuss a few simple rules with your child in advance of a playdate. Instead of feeling like you have to highly supervise every moment of play, go over a few basic rules to set up your child and their friend for success. You might want to begin with saying, “Each family has different rules. Let’s figure out a few for our house that make the most sense. How about we play safe?” And another might be, “We clean up fifteen minutes before your friend has to leave.” Then, talk about what playing safe means to you like, “We don’t run in the house” or “We stay on the first floor.” When the friend arrives, welcome them in, share your excitement for a great time, and then partner with your child to communicate those few rules you’ve discussed. You might say to your child, “Do you remember what we talked about to keep you both safe?”
- Proactively remind. A playdate might offer the perfect opportunity to remind your child just before their friend arrives one skill or tool they might try out. You may whisper in your child’s ear, “Remember how we take turns. How can you do that with your friend?”
- Ask key questions like: “Did you have fun during your playdate? What made it fun?” Learn more about your child’s impressions of interacting with others and how working together can make a playtime more enjoyable.
- Recognize effort. Frequently, children receive feedback on what they are not doing right, but how often do you recognize when they are working on their behaviors? Recognize effort by saying “I notice….” like, “I noticed how you used an I-message with your sister when you got frustrated. That’s excellent!”
- Learn about development. Each new age will present different social challenges. Becoming informed about what developmental milestones your child is working toward will offer you empathy and patience.
- Reflect on outcomes to build confidence. “Remember when you and Sam were not getting along? Sam wanted to control the iPad and you did too. But, now you both have discovered that playing dress up with costumes and making up stories together without screens is more fun, and you’ve remained good friends.”
- Stay engaged. Working together on ideas for trying out new and different collaborative friendship-building strategies can help offer additional support and motivation for your child when tough issues arise.
- Engage in further practice. Create more opportunities to practice when all is calm and it’s playtime.
- Recognize and call out when it is going well. It may seem obvious, but it’s easy not to notice when all is moving along smoothly. When your child is using the communication tools you’ve taught them, a short, specific call out is all that’s needed. “I noticed you took turns with your Rubix Cube when your brother wanted to play with it too. I’ll bet that felt good. Excellent.”
- Recognize small steps along the way. Don’t wait for the big accomplishments in order to recognize. Remember that your recognition can work as a tool to promote more positive behaviors. Find small ways your child is making an effort and let them know you see them.
- Build celebrations into your routine. For example, “Since you made a new friend this week, why don’t I call her mom and invite her to go to the pool with us?” Encourage opportunities for fun and further connection.
Working together as a family can be enjoyable. Turn on some music or sing a song while cleaning up.
Don’t nag. Instead set a timer to remind your children when it’s time for cleaning up.
It’s likely that your kids will engage in some competitive sports activities either by playing informally in your neighborhood or by playing on a team. Those experiences can also offer valued skills like teamwork, learning how to win and lose graciously, and getting along with others.
Step 3. Practice to Grow Skills and Develop Habits
Practice can take the form of pretend play, cooperatively working together, or trying out a new skill with you as a coach and ready support. Practice is necessary in order for children to internalize new skills. Practice grows vital new brain connections that strengthen each time your child works hard to perform the new action.
The best way to turn around a misbehavior is by recognizing when and how your child makes good choices and acts positively in similar circumstances. Children need to learn what to do as well as what not to do.
Children have plenty of time for screens. Playdates should not be one of them if you want to maximize your child’s social learning. Adopt the motto: “Friends before screens.” Perhaps get out some novelty toys that haven’t been opened yet or some creative playthings to attract their attention and interest, put away the screens, and allow them time to work out what they’ll do.
Step 4. Support Your Child’s Development and Success
At this point, you’ve taught your child some new strategies for taking turns and collaborating so that they understand how to take action. You’ve practiced together. Now, you can offer support when it’s needed by reteaching, monitoring, and coaching. Parents and those in a parenting role naturally offer support as they see their child fumble with a situation in which they need help. This is no different.
Step 5. Recognize Effort and Quality to Foster Motivation
No matter how old your child is, your praise and encouragement are their sweetest reward.
If your child is working to grow their skills – even in small ways – it will be worth your while to recognize it. Your recognition can go a long way to promoting positive behaviors and expanding your child’s self-esteem and confidence. Your recognition also promotes safe, secure, and nurturing relationships — a foundation for strong communication and a healthy relationship with you as they grow.
You can recognize your child’s efforts with praise, high fives, and hugs. Praise is most effective when you name the specific behavior of which you want to see more. For example, “You shared your games with your friend — I love seeing that!”
Avoid bribes. A bribe is a promise for a behavior, while praise is special attention after the behavior. While bribes may work in the short term, praise grows lasting motivation for good behavior and effort. For example, instead of saying, “If you share your ipod with your sister, I will let you have more screen time later” (which is a bribe), try recognizing the behavior after. “You were sharing with your sister. I really appreciate that!”
Engaging in these five steps is an investment that builds your skills as an effective parent to use on many other issues and builds important skills that will last a lifetime for your child. Throughout this tool, there are opportunities for children to become more self-aware, to deepen their social awareness, to exercise their self-management skills, to work on their relationship skills, and to demonstrate and practice responsible decision making.