Now Is the Right Time!
As a parent, 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 relationships. Learning how to connect with and care about others and their property is essential to our children’s development. Learning how we 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 melting down because their friend won’t share their Lego set, your seven-year-old coveting the family iPad while their sibling waits not so patiently, or your ten-year-old obsessing over the presents they want for their birthday, our children’s relationships with “stuff” can become a daily challenge if we don’t create plans and strategies for dealing with them along with getting input from our children.
Today, in the short term, sharing can create:
- a sense of confidence that we can help our child in their relationships and sense of responsibility with things;
- greater opportunities for connection and enjoyment; and
- trust in each other that we have the competence to manage our relationships and the “stuff” in our lives.
Tomorrow, in the long term, your child:
- builds skills in self-awareness;
- builds skills in social awareness, perspective-taking, collaboration, empathy, and compassion;
- builds skills in self-control and managing emotions; and
- learns independence, organization, and self-sufficiency.
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 best done 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 or possession 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?”
Sometimes feeling the need for friends especially when you feel like you 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.
Our worries are not always our children’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!
- Engage your child in a conversation about friendship. You could ask:
- “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, “What’s your favorite hero, book character, or movie character?” Have them draw the hero on the poster board. Now list the many characteristics that 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?”
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 and 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 a parent better understand the role of friendships in their child’s life and the challenges they may face.2 Here are some examples:
- 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 emphasis 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-old interest and investment in friendships and peer approval elevates and becomes 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 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” crowd and where they fit in friendship groups. They may tend toward excluding others in order feel included in a group so 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 the 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 turn taking 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, “Daddy, 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 – makes 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, our children have 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. In directing a child to share or even taking away a toy in the moment of play and giving it to another, it 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 will offer constructive alternatives.
- Organize together. In order for your children 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 too. This can also go along with the rule: “Friends before screens.” So that 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 has your child outgrown in toys, books, or games? How can they give it 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 children 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?”
- “Are there spaces for children 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. Think about:
- “When your children are around the house playing, when will they clean up?”
- “Will you have them clean up with friends or without?”
- “Will clean up 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.
Working together as a family can be enjoyable time spent. 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.
- Teach your child to collaborate using collaborative games. Increasingly, children are required to work in small groups on school projects in order to prepare for the 21st Century workplace that scouts for and promotes individuals who are skilled at collaboration. 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.
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. And those experiences can also offer valued skills like teamwork, learning how to win and lose graciously, and getting along with others.
- As your children cultivate friendships, play, and take 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 children 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 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 angry when you grab my toy because I feel like you don’t care that I am playing with it.”
Gather a few stuffed friends or action figures around to teach this skill. Perhaps Luke Skywalker Lego Mini-Figure battles Darth Vader Lego Mini-Figure 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 the social learning. Plus, we all have our moments when we 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.
Step 3. Practice to Grow Skills, Confidence, 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.
- Use “Show me…” 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 with. 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 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?”
- Create lists on your white or chalk board for fun. Post questions like:
- Recognize effort. Frequently, we offer feedback on what children are not doing right, but how often do we 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!”
- Schedule playdates. Playdates can become invaluable practice for your child. Playdates build connections and help your child to 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 for example, “We don’t climb on the furniture” 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?”
Our children have plenty of time for screen time. 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.
- 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?”
The best way to turnaround a misbehavior that may be taking place 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.
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 naturally offer support as they see their child fumble with a situation in which they need help. This is no different.
- 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.
- Learn about development. Each new age and stage will present differing social challenges. So becoming informed regularly 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.
- Apply logical consequences when needed. Logical consequences should come soon after the negative behavior and need to be provided in a way that maintains a healthy relationship. Rather than punishment, a consequence is about supporting the learning process. First, get your own emotions in check. Not only is this good modeling, when your emotions are in check you are able to provide logical consequences that fit the behavior. Second, invite your child into a discussion about the expectations established in Step 2. Third, if you feel that your child is not holding up their end of the bargain (unless it is a matter of them not knowing how), then apply a logical consequence as a teachable moment.
Step 5. Recognize Effort and Quality to Foster Motivation
Though it is easy to forget, your attention is your child’s sweetest reward. It’s easy to get caught up in the busyness and business of getting tasks accomplished to get to work and school on time in the morning, for example. But if your child is working hard to share, take turns, and collaborate, it will be worth your while to call it out. After all, your recognition can go a long way to promoting more of the same positive behaviors and expanding your child’s sense of social competence. Add to your child’s motivation to work hard with the following actions.
- 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 children are using the communications tools you’ve taught them, a short, specific call out is all that’s needed. “I notice 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.
Avoid stickers, gifts, or other physical rewards as bait for performance. These actually have a de-motivating effect on children. When you remove the candy, for example, have they internalized the skills and also the sense of responsibility for performing them? There’s less of a chance if you’ve offered a “bribe.” Focus on your attention as the best reward. This is an essential strategy in discipline for skill building.
Be specific. “Good job” seems to not carry much meaning. However, a specific compliment about a pointed behavior – “You went and found a common interest with the new girl you met. Love seeing that!” – can promote more of the same.
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.