Why We Don’t Force Children to Share in the Classroom

As you probably know, being a referee for children can be pretty much a lose-lose situation. Frequently we have no way to please everyone or make things seem fair. There is often no way to even decipher what happened or who “had it first.”

It’s not your fault, children just have such a strong (and often unreasonable) sense of justice. They want so badly for you to see their side, yet they’re often still learning how to see the other person’s side.

Many of these frustrating little fights pop up because of incidents of sharing, or a lack thereof.

There is nothing inherently wrong with sharing, it’s a beautiful idea and an important concept. The problem is, it’s really vague. There are no set rules and that can be confusing, and very frustrating, to a young child.

Imagine if you were really engrossed in a project on your laptop, but all of a sudden, you had to stop what you were doing and hand over your computer to a friend because it was her turn and you needed to share.

Or imagine you were cooking dinner, but without warning had to give up your best knife because it was someone else’s turn. What if you couldn’t wear your favorite dress to a party because you needed to share? How frustrating would that be? It’s almost unimaginable, because it’s not the way the adult world works.

Play is children’s work and it is just as frustrating for them. Plus, it puts you in the constant role of referee, which is no fun for anyone.

You might be surprised to hear that we don’t really “do” sharing in Montessori schools. In a sense, the children share everything in the classroom, but they are never asked to stop working with something because someone else wants it.

One main reason is that we want children to be able to work with something just as long as their stretching concentration will allow them.

Another reason though is that waiting is an important life skill. Montessori classrooms purposely have just one of most of the materials so that children have to learn to wait, to choose something else to do, when what they want most is not available.

So instead of asking the children to share, we have a simple rule—if someone is working with a lesson, it is not available.

When the children see the material back on the shelf, they know they may choose it. They rarely come to us asking if they can have a turn because the rule is so simple; they know what the answer will be.

Sometimes we introduce a particularly exciting new material in the classroom and there is invariably an eager child who can barely contain himself with his desire to get his hands on it. In this case, we suggest to the child that he ask the person using it to let him know when he’s done so the second child can have a turn. The child who got to the lesson ahead of him almost always graciously agrees.

We also assure the child that the material will be available for many days and everyone will get a turn to use it. Then we ask him to go choose something else while he waits.

I think there are times when talking about sharing is useful, like explaining to your child that when you have a guest over, the guest may share his toys. You can help your child put away any toys he is much too in love with to share, to avoid a battle.

You could also talk about sharing what we have with people in need, about how it’s important to help those who need it when we can.

But if you’re facing constant pleas of “Is it my turn yet?” or “She’s had it so long,” you may want to give this a try.

Simply explain that the toy will be available when the other child is done using it, but he may use it as long as he likes. Then help your child find something else to do.

It also helps to show children that their parents understand the frustration and difficulty of waiting. You could say something like, “It’s hard to wait. This morning, I wanted to shower, but I had to wait until Mommy was done. Waiting is something we all have to practice.” This shows that you’re not dismissing how they feel, but that waiting is just part of life.

Learning to wait for what we want really is hard, but it doesn’t need to be a constant battle. Try taking yourself out of the equation and making a rule simple enough that the children can handle it on their own.

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