Sharing, Turn Taking, and Fairness: A Montessori Perspective
I went back and forth between the title I chose for this post, and a similar one with the tagline, “One Montessorian’s Perspective. Ultimately I went with what you see above, but I want to emphasize that this is my view and is not necessarily shared by all Montessorians. I came to the conclusions I did through my training and my work with Montessori children, but others will have come to different conclusions through similar paths. That’s okay. This is not the Montessori view, but it is my Montessori-based view. Anyway, moving on…
Why We Want our Children to Share
As parents, we all want our children to grow up to be fulfilled, active members of society in whatever way suits them best. None of us want to see our children struggle to make friends, and the pain of seeing our own child hurt others is second only to the pain of seeing them get hurt. It’s terrible.
Sharing and taking turns are very important topics among parents, I think, because we see them as indicators of our children’s social and emotional development. If she doesn’t share, she will be unkind and won’t have good friendships, we fear. These are important skills, to be sure, but I believe we expect them of children far earlier than is age appropriate. I also believe that they come about spontaneously, but often we don’t recognize it because they don’t look like we think they should.
Social harmony was extremely important to Dr. Montessori, and is a value shared by most Montessorians. She believed very strongly that if we wanted a more peaceful world, we had to start with the children, and that it was the children who could lift us out of the cycle of war and hatred. This is not something we need to teach children directly, but rather a capacity that they already possess. She gives a great reminder in Dr. Montessori’s Own Handbook, saying,
What we all desire for ourselves, namely, not to be disturbed in our work, not to find hindrances to our efforts, to have good friends ready to help us in times of need, to see them rejoice with us, to be on terms of equality with them, to be able to confide and trust in them – this is what we need for happy companionship. In the same way children are human beings to whom respect is due, superior to us by reason of their “innoncence” and of the greater possibilities of their future. What we desire, they desire also.
She goes on to remind us that they will imitate us, so
Let us treat them, therefore, with all the kindness which we would wish to help to develop in them…Kindness consists in interpreting the wishes of others, in conforming one’s self to them, and sacrificing, if need be, one’s own desire. This is the kindness which we must show towards children.
It may be helpful, then, to remember that our children want the very same things for themselves that we want for them. They want friendships, to share with others, to be treated with respect. Because of this, we do not need to force or coerce them into specific behaviors, but simply to model for them the same kindness we hope to see in them – something for which they have an even greater capacity than we do – and allow them to learn from and develop this same kindness in their own time.
Many adults, so concerned that their children grow up to be kind and considerate, will insist that they share their things with other children. What does this really teach them? I’m uncomfortable with this practice, especially when it comes to insisting that a child share his or her personal belongings. Not only do I hope that my child grow up with be willing to share with others, but I hope that she will learn to respect the property of others. When I insist that she share a favorite toy, I am showing a lack of respect for her things. If something truly belongs to her, she ought to have the right to choose who can use it and how.
When I insist that she share, I am also taking away from my child an opportunity to give from the heart herself. Many, many times I have observed an interaction between two very young children who wanted the same object and I have believed, wrongly, that things were about to turn ugly. Many times, I have intervened, but when I have restrained myself and trusted the children, I have noticed that they very often resolve the issue on their own. I have seen this even with pre-verbal infants and toddlers. One child may offer the desired toy to the other freely, or the other child may realize that his or her companion is either not ready or not willing to give up the toy, and move on. When one child moves on, no harm is done. When one child sees their friend’s interest in an object and chooses to share it with them, it’s a beautiful thing – a spontaneous and gentle act. Forced sharing comes from a sense of obligation, but genuine sharing is giving from the heart, and the more children engage in this type of giving, the more they will the feel the joy that comes with it and wish for more. I certainly do not want to raise a child who feels obligated to give of herself.
What about the child who gets what he or she wants after an adult insists that a friend share with them? What is this child learning? Over time, they may develop a sense of entitlement to others’ things. The phrases, “I’m telling!” and “You have to share!” come to mind. This child is robbed of an opportunity to receive a gift freely given, and instead learns to insist on getting their way – not conducive to harmonious friendships.
As a teen, I worked with young children quite a bit. I led groups of them in vacation bible school, taught Sunday School, babysat, and nannied. I was around children all the time, and had never questioned the idea that it was my job to step in and mediate conflicts as they arose. I had no problem regulating the use of various toys and play equipment, to make sure everyone had a turn. Things had to be fair, after all.
It wasn’t until I started work in a Montessori school that my view on all of this began to change. I was taken aback when the teacher I assisted told me that she did not expect the children to share. I was even more surprised when she told me that she let them settle their own conflicts. This all seemed a bit crazy to me, and ran counter to the way I had always done things. It didn’t take long, however, for me to see that it actually worked.
In this classroom, the children handled their conflicts by using a tool known as The Peace Rose. The rose, a silk flower, sat in a vase in a corner of the room and any child was welcome to take it when they had a problem to resolve with another person. When approached with the peace rose, the other child (or adult) was meant to stop what they were doing, stand up, and listen. When the first child had said what they needed to say, they would give the rose to the other person, signaling their chance to respond. The rose was passed back and forth until the issue was resolved, at which time both children would hold its stem and say together, “We declare peace.” Of course it took some adult help as the children learned this process, and adults did need to step in and help with particularly sticky situations, but the vast majority of conflicts were handled with no adult intervention at all.
I was surprised to see how capable these children were of handling their own conflicts, but what struck me even more was how drastically different their solutions could be from what I would have come up with. Their sense of justice and fairness was completely different from mine.
Think about this: there are six apple slices and two children would like some. If an adult took charge of the situation, what would they likely suggest? That each child get three slices of apple – makes sense, right? It’s equal. When you’re dealing with children who have not developed one to one correspondence yet, or even if they have, have not learned to divide numbers in half, however, this solution makes far less sense.
It has been said, and I completely agree, that fairness does not mean giving each person the same thing, but giving each person what he or she needs. A likely child-developed solution to the apple problem might involve sitting and enjoying the apples together. One child might finish four slices in the same time that another eats only two, but does that really matter? In the end, the point is that children have solved their own conflict, and have enjoyed a snack together. If they’re satisfied with the outcome, whether or not we adults view it as fair simply is not relevant.
When we insist that young children take equal turns, or divide things equally, we rob them of a chance to negotiate or to use their own problem solving skills, and we’re projecting our own sense of fairness onto them. Relationships are strengthened and harmony increased when people have the opportunity to work through challenges and arrive at a peaceful solution together. Being forced to behave toward another person in one way or another is more likely to breed resentment than harmony.
So what do you do, then?
As Dr. Montessori’s words above remind us, the best thing we can do is model genuine kindness and generosity for our children. I also think it’s helpful to be honest when we don’t want to share something, and to help our children develop problem solving skills by talking through this with them.
When conflict over an item does arise between children, I do think it’s sometimes appropriate to step in and mediate, but I find that it’s most helpful if I simply offer guidance, leaving the final solution up to the children. When I feel inclined to step in, I try to stop and wait a bit longer, getting a better sense of the situation while giving the children a chance to handle it themselves. Of course when I feel there’s a good chance someone might get hurt, I step in immediately, but often I find that my help is not needed at all.
I have had a Peace Rose on a shelf in Annabelle’s room since before she was born, and as she gets older I’ll introduce it to her in the hopes that it will be a useful tool for navigating difficult situations in our home and family.
Discussing feelings, I believe, is an important step on the road to developing the level of empathy that leads children to share freely. There are times when Annabelle wants to bring a really cool new thing with her to a play group or get together and I’m fairly certain she’ll be averse to the idea of anyone else touching it. I will sometimes talk with her about whether she’ll want to let other children touch her toy, too. Usually the answer is no, so we talk about how the other children might be disappointed and it will be hard for them to see something really cool and not be able to touch it. I’ll then ask something along the lines of, “Do you think we should leave it at home, or in the car, since it’s only for you to touch right now?” When she does refuse to share something with another child, I’ll point out how they seem to be feeling, “It looks like P is really upset because she wants to play with x, but you don’t want to share it.” When she does share willingly, I may say something like, “She looks so happy to have a turn!”
We talk often about sharing as a choice, and notice when someone else has something that they don’t want to share. Because Annabelle knows that she is not required to share her things, she is usually pretty understanding when another child asserts that same right. Of course she is still a toddler, and tears and anger do come, but I trust that she’ll get the hang of it. More and more frequently, I see her offering things to friends, happily declaring, “You do want to share!”