The title of my book makes people flinch. I know it's jarring. It's OK Not to Share goes against one of the parenting notions we hold most dear.
Even I cringe a bit when I scan the table of contents. Twenty-nine rules stare back at me -- each one negating another well-loved parenting standard. But these renegade ideas are based in solid child development combined with new insights from advancing brain research. They may seem backwards at first, but they're what kids actually need.
Of course, it does take some explaining.
Take sharing. Who hasn't said "Be nice and share your toys?" From the earliest age, we want our children to be generous. The trouble is, we're going about it all wrong.
Think how a typical sharing situation unfolds among the preschool crowd. One child's busy playing and another kid comes up and wants the toy. "Give Jack the truck," we say. "You've had it a long time." We invoke sharing when we should invoke waiting.
Traditional sharing is forced. It trains children to give up something the instant someone else demands. It doesn't feel good. And kids won't do it when adults aren't watching. What's more, we don't follow these rules ourselves. Picture yourself using the computer to read a news story. Suddenly someone takes the keyboard and starts typing. Do you get mad? We expect our friends to wait their turn before grabbing something. We don't like to be interrupted. But when we're done, we'll gladly share. The same turn-taking idea should apply to kids: waiting until a child is "all done."
Of course, waiting for a turn is hard -- it may involve tears and foot stomping -- but all the more reason to practice. Impulse control (waiting for a toy and not grabbing) is a vital part of brain development and gets stronger through practice. Teach a child to say "Yes, you can have it when I'm done." When she drops the toy and moves on, help her think of others by saying, "Remember, Jack is waiting." Kids will learn courtesy, positive assertiveness, and the inner warmth of true generosity. The waiting child gains a terrific lesson in delayed gratification and the original child learns how good it feels to share.
Like sharing, many of the parenting ideas we cherish persist because we look through adult lenses. When we see kids invent a game of super-blaster bombs we worry about school violence and real armed conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. When we watch two children reject a third child, saying "you can't play" we worry about kindness and morality. When we hear a child scream "I hate you!" we believe him. All this is jumping to conclusions, often political, adult conclusions. Children have different needs from ours. It's up to us to understand what's age-appropriate.
What other dearly held parenting maxims should we turn upside-down? Here's a few:
1. Only Punch Friends
Roughhousing games, like boxing and wrestling, give kids high energy outlets and boost friendships. But only when everyone's having fun. If a child is angry, it's not a game. Rough-and-tumble games should be between willing partners who are in a playful mood. Puppy play is social and healthy, so welcome it but direct rough play to the right location -- set up a tumbling mat or take wild games outside.
2. Let Your Kid Swear
Say yes rather than no to bad words. Tell kids they can say anything they want -- in the bathroom. When you give kids a place for free expression, the illicit thrill of bad words diminishes. Swearing is mostly about power, so provide kids an outlet to be powerful. They can even pick out their own personal power word, like "thundercrackers!" Complete censorship rarely works.
3. Let Kids Hit and Kick
If your child is angry and needs to hit, let him hit, but direct the hitting toward a pillow, sofa or other safe target. This simple act of substitution gets the energy out, but reinforces the idea that people aren't for hurting. Young kids express emotions with their bodies.
4. "I Hate You!" is Nothing Personal
Overlook harsh words like "I hate you" and go directly to the feelings underneath. This is nothing more than a very angry young child. Stay calm and name the feeling: "You're really mad at me right now" or make an observation: "You're so mad you're saying 'I hate you!'" Making these statements helps you -- and your child -- keep things in perspective.
5. Kids Don't Have to Say "Sorry"
Saying "sorry" magically lets kids off the hook. It's better to take responsibility. Ask kids to set things right by taking action ("Go get Sara a tissue"). Teach kids to offer guarantees like, "I won't knock your tower down again." Words like that mean more than "sorry." Preschoolers rarely feel remorse, so don't insist on false apologies. Model manners yourself, and kids will say "sorry" when they really mean it.
6. It's OK Not to Share
We often ask kids to give up a toy the instant another child wants it. Don't interrupt. Wait until she's "all done." Waiting teaches impulse control and delayed gratification. When it's playtime, the child decides when she's done -- adults don't have to play referee or say "5 more minutes, then it's Jacob's turn." Commiserate with the waiting child ("It's hard to wait."). When a child's "all done" she'll happily give the object to the other child, and that's the moment she experiences the warm glow of generosity.
7. You Can't Play = AOK
"She can't play with us" may be true. Young kids ages 2-3 often can't cope with more than one playmate. Older kids may not feel safe when a new child appears ("will she change the game?" "will she wreck my castle?"). Kids should have the right to play alone or with one or two chosen friends. And they need help setting limits on peers ("you can play if you don't wreck my blocks"). Social rejection scares most adults, but kids need to experience taking social risks and recovering from occasional rejection. Seek help if rejection becomes chronic.
8. Paint Off the Paper
Art is action for young kids. It's about doing and exploring, not the finished product. So art doesn't have to stay quietly indoors at a table. Preschoolers love it when art moves outside. Make it big: paint a cardboard box. Make it crazy: paint with suction cups, spray bottles or rollers. When you engage large muscles and bring art outdoors, even active kids realize they have a creative side.
9. Be Buddies with Dead Birds
Beginning to understand death is a major task of the preschool years. Start with dead birds or worms. Gently touch small dead animals with sticks or give a child gloves to hold the body. It's good to let your child wonder and ask questions about a dead bird before she faces grief over a grandparent or beloved pet. If she asks when you will die, be sure to explain who will take care of her. Even in death, it's all about "me" for young kids.
10. Sex Ed Starts in Preschool
Young kids are naturally curious about birth and bodies. Teach them names for body parts, explain what's private, and use picture books to show how babies, puppies and kittens are made. Starting early helps make you an "askable" parent, so you can share your knowledge and values in the years to come. If a child's old enough to ask, he's old enough to get an honest answer.