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Your child cannot share toys, but they can take turns. The language you use matters.

The principle of sharing is stamped into our minds from very young, and we expect the same from our children. However this is a very difficult concept for a child to grasp. As parents we use the word share ambiguously, we share food and we share toys, we share a cake and we share a bike.

Children under the age of 7 struggle to understand nuanced words, as they are mostly concrete literal thinkers. So when we talk about the word share, it means literally having equal and fair amounts, all enjoying it at the same time. I can share cake or food, as we can all eat together. Food is something that can be divided up into fair and equal amounts. Toys cannot.

Children can take turns. Taking turns is easy to understand. You play now and then when you are done, I get a turn to play until I am done. This is a social contract that can be managed by the children themselves. This works on similar principles as toy sharing, but the language we use to explain this will either empower or disempower our children and others. Taking turns is a concept and word our children can both process and understand at a young age, whereas sharing is not

I cannot share a toy car between two friends, as one will play with the toy while the other waits. It also creates the idea or concept that the one playing with the car is not being a kind friend. This then places the parent in a position of having to manage or regulate how long a child gets to play with the toy. It eliminates the opportunity for the child with the toy to decide they are done, exercise control and learn from the social interaction. The child without the toy feels let down by the parent and then also struggles to learn anything from the interaction, except that they are feeling left out and rejected. Taking turns also creates opportunities to swap and negotiate use  of the toys.

Obviously the younger the child, the more guidance they will need while learning this concept, but they will get the hang of it over time.

What are the rules for taking turns?

1 – When your child is playing with a toy and someone else wants it, they can ask for the other child to wait their turn.

2 – Your child determines when they are done with said toy.

3 – If your child wants a toy and someone else is busy with it, they can ask the other child to pass that toy to them when they are done.

4 – No parent is the gatekeeper of a toy or time played with said toy

5 – If your child is having difficulty waiting, help them find something else to play with while they wait.

Guiding your child:

It is important in the beginning to give your child the words to use, but not speak on their behalf, unless it is necessary.

Here is a list of sentences you can teach your child to say:

“When you are done, can I have a turn?”

“I am not done yet. When I am done, you can have a turn.”

“Thank you for remembering that it is my turn.”

“I will wait and play with something else.”

“Would you like to play with this toy? Can we swap when you are done?”

What would this teach our children in the long run?

1 – Delayed gratification and patience – Having to wait and not being the one determining the time they need to wait is important for impulse control and emotional development.

2 – Negotiation skills – learning to swap and negotiate for toys, will one day serve them well when they need to negotiate in adulthood.

3 – The ability to move on and find something else to occupy themselves with. Thus learning to manage and regulate their emotions and expectations.

4 – What they are busy with is important and they don’t have to sacrifice their own learning and development to satisfy someone else’s needs. – This is so important! Kids learn through play, so when they are busy with a toy, they are actually learning and developing their brain. Adults have the tendency to want to intervene and stop the play for the sake of peace, but we are really doing no-one any favours by intervening.

5 – Social contracts are there for them to manage – We want our kids to be kind and inclusive, both now and in their adult years. By giving them the skills to manage the playground dynamics and letting them learn this when they are young we are setting them up for success.

6 – Self-reliance and independence that leads to problem solving skills – They need to be able to learn to trust themselves and their own needs. We as adults won’t always be present all the time during their lives, so being there while they learn the skills, and allowing them to manage it themselves, gives confidence in their own personal skills.

When would a parent intervene.

1 – If a child gets so upset that they get violent – you block and remove the violent child

2 – When your child struggles to wait, you help them work through their emotions and redirect. You do not intervene with the toy situation.

3 – Block snatching of toys

4 – Allow your child to work through their emotions

5 – Keep giving the words to your child and empower them to use it.

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6 Tips for parenting 3 and 4 year olds

Parenting a three and four year old is pretty intense. They are the concentrated essence of their being, their personality and everything in the world. This age is when they mirror us as parents the most. This is the age where they start whining (which is a good thing) pushing harder on boundaries and become bossy. This is the age where it feels as if you want to give up on parenting all together.

Each age has their moments, however it feels as if these two years are the longest and toughest years a parent will ever have to parent. These years creates in us the everlasting fear of the teenage years. They are not called threenagers for nothing.

At this age your child has basically completed a very big developmental leap. At the age of 18 to 24 months their brain disconnects the idea that, the primary caregiver and they, are one and the same person. The physicality of their being is now two entities. Only at the age of 7 does it dawn on them that they do not share a brain with their primary caregiver or anyone else for that matter. From age 2 years to approximately 2.5 to 3 years, this discovery is what they focus on. So they will start to experiment with independence in play, always using the primary caregiver as a homing beacon.

At about age 3, they finally made their peace with this, and now can focus on other developmental needs and leaps. Now they are focused on learning about emotional control, authority and delayed gratification. (Just remember impulse and emotional control is only starting to develop now. It is the part of the brain that develops the slowest and is estimated to be only fully developed at the age of 25 https://web.stanford.edu/group/sparklab/pdf/Tarullo,%20Obradovic,%20Gunnar%20(2009,%200-3)%20Self-Control%20and%20the%20Developing%20Brain.pdf )

These skills takes time to develop and practice. They look to their parents for guidance on how this will look and they try to mimic everything we do. Their frustration levels is through the roof. Have you ever looked at something being done, try it yourself and it just did not work out? This is a constant for them. They can see how things are suppose to work, from social interaction to engaging with the material world, but the result is just wrong more often than not.

They get frustrated because we just don’t seem to get what they want and they struggle mid-frustration to use their words, just like us. So they scream and whine and cry. Whining is a sign that they are trying to override their emotions to interact with their rational brain, where they have a better command of words and better control of their body. It takes time, be patient with them and yourself.

So how do we parent through the emotional outbursts and the whining? The feeling of constant push back and willfulness?

6 Tips for parenting 3 and 4 year olds

1. Eye level:

It is so important to remember to go down to your child’s eye level and engage with them there. A towering person, feels threatening and increases the hormonal output of fight or flight. Make the effort to look them in the eyes when talking with them. First it is less scary and secondly it invites them into a conversation, instead of a confrontation.

2. Acknowledge their emotions:

Nothing is more empowering than knowing that your emotions are recognised, respected and valid. Help them through it with support, recognition and being present. Emotions are nothing to be scared of, if you run away from their emotional expressions, you are telling them that their emotions are bad and should be feared. That in itself stunts the developmental process they are engaging with.

3. Lean into the situation:

This is contrary to how most of us were raised. We were raised that negative emotions and expressions in behaviour should ostracize the person expressing them. They should remove themselves until they feel better or can better express themselves. This is not healthy. Yes you can move your child away from a public setting, but only to help them work through what they are experiencing and feeling. Never leave your child alone to work through these big emotions. Try to remain unruffled and matter of fact.

Things you can say:

“I am moving you to a different room, so that you can work through your emotions with me.”

“ I am not scared of how you are feeling, you are safe”

“I am with you”

“I love you”

“This is big emotions. I sense You feel frustrated” – (whatever emotion you can pinpoint at that particular point in time)

4. Don’t step into the power struggle:

Power struggles are only effective if there is two people in the struggle. Your child is trying to determine their own authority and abilities. There is no need, nor will there ever be a need to try and prove who is in control. The moment you as the parent start arguing with your child about who is in control, your child is in control of the situation. If you lean into the emotional expression and just calmly keep your boundary, there will not be a power struggle. The moment you feel like you have something to prove or have something to lose, that is when you stepped into the power struggle. In a power struggle no-one wins. Children find security in the calmness of the parent.

5. Give them real choices:

Children this age wants more autonomy. Giving choices, that are real choices for autonomy, will help navigate this learning curve. Real choices are important. A real choice is where no matter what they choose, their choice cannot and will not be overridden or punished. If the choices you give your child is choices that ends in a situation where you as the parent will have to override the choice or one of the options given is punitive, the choice becomes manipulation instead of empowerment. Ie Real choice: “We are going to a park with thorns. Would you like to put your shoes on now, or when we get there?” Manipulation “Put on your shoes or we don’t go to the park.”

6. Check your own behaviour:

This is the toughest one for parents to embrace. We are our children’s main sphere of information. They look to us for the “how, when, where and why” of behaviour. If your child speaks rudely or bossy to you, chances are that you have been speaking to your child and other that way for a while now. Children in this age group start to experiment with authority. Where do they learn how authority is expressed and engaged with? From you as the parent. So check yourself. Check how you speak to them. How often do you ask them to wait before you engage with them? How do you say no? If your behaviour has been dismissive and abrupt, go apologise to your child and admit it. Tell them you will try to pay attention to how you speak to them. They will internalize that apology and start checking their own way of doing things.

Lastly, give your child space to grow and learn.

Parenting is messy and fun. Enjoy it, learn and grow in it.

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