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Teaching Children to Share

Part 2 of Navigating Sibling Rivalry

Spoiler alert! If it's coerced, it isn't sharing.

In the last article of this series we covered a few of the guiding principles we use during our interpersonal relationships as adults. It would be incredibly easy to slap a "7 ways to stop sibling rivalry" title on here as a gimmicky hook, but without understanding the mechanisms behind our peaceful interactions, you will find watered-down click bait insufficient in real life scenarios.

Let's start at the beginning. You can't help children learn to interact unless you have a solid understanding of the types of property and the rules of engagement for each type. Children will not be successful at independently navigating sibling relationships until they have absorbed this playbook.

There are three types of property:

Individual property

Community property

The boundary between

We must explicitly TEACH the guiding principles supporting the boundaries, responsibilities and freedoms people inherently maintain before children can become successful at interpersonal relationships.

Today we will look deeper into the second type of property found within the home. Let's focus in on community property and what it really means to share.

Community Property

Can your neighbor take your lawnmower without asking? No.

Individual property belongs to the owner.

Can your neighbor drive on the street between your houses without asking? Yes.

Community property can not be claimed as individual property.

Can your neighbor back up into your driveway in order to turn around? Yes. If he is careful.

The boundary between individual property and community property remains peaceful through open dialogue, mutual respect, and curtesy.

In your own home you must be very clear that these three types of property exist. You also must be very clear which items (and which locations) in the home fall into which category before behaviors can be successfully addressed.

Cultural Differences

There is no clear cut line that says "these things are individual property in your home and these things are community property." For many cultures, almost everything in the home is considered community property. For many cultures the opposite is true. There is no right or wrong answer in regards to which is which in the home. The important part is that everyone agrees which is which!

Here are the scenarios that tend to arise within the communal space...

  • a sibling wishes to play with a toy that another child is using (Taking)

  • a sibling wishes to play with a child who is working independently (Bid for Play)

  • the sibling is not using the community materials correctly... either the toy or the child will be injured if such behavior continues.


Let's start with the easy one. It is not okay to take from another person. As a parent, one of the more common things you will find yourself dealing with when your children are young is taking. Here's a great response, and a breakdown of why it works:

"You want this. I understand. You really want to play with this. We do not take from other people. Try saying, 'May I have a turn next?' (wait.... ) What do you choose to do while you are waiting?"

Why does this playbook work? First, it tells the child that you understand their dilemma. Isn't it awful when mom steps in and has no awareness of the problem?! Whenever possible, start with empathy.

Next, it lays down the house rules in a very clear manner. Parents love to get on a soap box and rattle on as their children tune out and start to stew in their lonely misery. Just tell 'em. Then get on with it.

Third, it gives the child an initiating phrase so that they may request the toy in a manner that follows the house rules. We can't very well expect them to "act right" without making it obvious what acting right looks and sounds like!

Lastly, it helps them deal with the fallout from the scene. The best thing to do is move on while you wait, but it is so easy to get stuck in wishing for the thing that we don't have. Young brains (and old ones!) struggle with looking past strong emotions. Sitting with your child as they deal with this unpleasantness helps them learn to self regulate.

Bid For Play

It may seem easy... Just play together, right?

Imagine you have spent 30 minutes constructing a train station with the intention of playing out a scenario with your toy trains. Just as the last track is laid, your younger brother comes up and asks to play. You probably have a few concerns.

  • Will he tear up all your hard work?

  • I worked so hard on this so that I could play the game my way. Now I will have to change everything.

  • He always breaks the toys.

  • He only wants to play with the trains I like best.

  • The last time he did this Mom took his side. No one listens to me.

What are the chances one of these concerns will arise? There are 4 INCREDIBLY EFFECTIVE guidelines for keeping joint play peaceful:

  1. We must wait until the person is done with their work if they wish to work alone.

  2. Turn taking means going "back and forth". (Your turn, my turn... like taking turns on a slide.) Taking turns can not be coerced. You have to ask, "Do you want to take turns?"

  3. Sharing means playing together. (Like two kids sharing a bowl of crayons.) Sharing can not be coerced. You have to ask, "Can we share?"

  4. If you join a game, you have to join it on their terms.

Trust me, the last thing you want is for your children to think that anytime they get into their activity, it could be taken away and destroyed by a sibling. If you want your child to create magical, elaborate, focused play, the kind where real learning happens, you have to let them trust that their space and work will be respected.

This reality (that all children in the home deserve the time and space to work independently) will constantly come up against the reality that siblings want to play with each other, and want to play most with the materials that are already in use. You must teach your children how to request play, you must teach them how to respond to these requests, and you MUST teach them that responses are to be respected.

It is incredibly important for young children to learn how to stand up for themselves politely. We must allow small children the ability to tell big brother, "You can play with me if you don't knock down my tower." the same way we allow ourselves to tell the neighbor, "Please do not back up into my driveway so quickly. Children play here." Let your children build their backbone within the loving environment of your home.

Communal property is material that takes turns being used in an environment where individual work is respected. Sharing does not mean "I get to have a turn when I want one." Forced sharing is really just taking by a bigger person (the adult). Sharing is a voluntary arrangement.

As this series continues we will take a closer look at the boundary between communal and individual property, and active play. (Our bodies are a form of individual property too! Attempting to rough and tumble without consent from both parties is just a fight.)

For now we will leave the topic here with a few questions to all the parents in the room. Do you know which items in your home are community property and which are individual property? Do your children? What would you do if the police demanded you share your car with the next person who wanted to take a turn?

I hope our journey inspires your own,

Buckets & Berries


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