Nine Words to End Fights Over Toys

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“Use your words.”

It’s a popular phrase adults say when kids are acting out.  And kids do need to learn how to effectively communicate verbally in order to move away from communicating behaviorally.  But in order to use their words, they have to have the words.

We have to be intentional in teaching our children the social scripts they need to navigate the social tides of life.  By teaching kids a few simple phrases, they quickly recognize them as you coach them through regular opportunities for problem solving, and soon they feel comfortable enough with them to use them independently.

If I had to pick one phrase that I have seen make the most difference for kids in social situations, it would be these nine words:

“Can I have a turn when you’re done please?”

Doesn’t seem magical, does it?

But here’s why I’ve seen it bring about amazing results in the middle of typical childhood squabbles.

Sharing and turn taking are things we value as adults, but they are extremely vague concept for kids.  Most of the time, kids really only understand how they work when it comes to making sure they get their turns!  Through their developmental lens, many preschoolers adhere to the philosophy that “What’s your is mine and what’s mine is mine.”  This is why “He’s not sharing!” or “She took my toy!”  is such a frequent complaint at preschools and play dates.

Often, our response is to force sharing.  (Or at least the appearance of sharing!)  We set timers or pry something from their clenched little fists, in an effort to restore order.  But as I’ve taught in my ebooks and ecourse, this approach robs kids of critical problem solving practice and opportunities to develop their own social skills.  We may value peace and order as adults, but kids need a manageable amount of conflict and chaos to give them meaningful social skill practice.

Given their own tools and scripts as well as adequate opportunities to practice, kids will not only gain the skills they need to be socially competent, but they’ll also increase their confidence in their own ability to solve their own problems.

(The combined result means less whining and tattling for you to listen to!)

When we coach a child through the process of asking, “Can I have a turn when you’re done please?” we communicate several key points that ease the process for both kids involved.

1.  I want a turn.  This empowers the child who is asking.  It helps the child to know it’s OK to communicate your needs and wants to others, and that you can and should do that clearly and politely.

2.  You get to finish.  The magic ingredient in this phrase is “when you’re done”.  It communicates to the child in possession of the object that no one is trying to take it away or force them to “share”.  It lets them feel a sense of control, which almost always has the result of softening the child’s white knuckled grip.

Without these three extra words, children only hear that they are losing something– that someone is taking something away from them.  With those three words, consideration is given to the child with the object.  Instead of losing an object, they are gaining an element of control.

I have watched time and again as two children have fought passionately over an object, then had an intervening adult introduce this nine word phrase.  More times than not the child who is in possession of the object is done within a matter of minutes (or even seconds!) — but only when they get to do it on their terms.  The fight wasn’t about who had the object as much as it was about who had the power.

What about when the child doesn’t hand it over so quickly?

Sometimes you can coach children through this phrase and simply follow up with, “So Ben, when you’re done, find Sky and make sure she gets the next turn, OK?” and that is that.  The two seamlessly make the switch-a-roo on their own moments later.

Sometimes you coach them through the dialogue and the child in possession says, “I’ll never be done!”

There are a few things you could do here, depending on the situation and the temperaments of the kids involved.  You can keep things light and simply say, “Well, there are so many fun things to do here, I doubt you’ll want to play with that  F O R E V E R!  So when you decide you’re done, just make sure you give it to Sky so that she can be next.”  For other kids you might need to say, “Well, I know some kids like to use timers to decide when their turns are over.  Do you two want to try that?  Ben, how much more time do you think you need?”  If the two agree on a reasonable number, great!  Help the children set a timer, and give it to one of them, so that they can be in charge. (This is my all-time, absolute, favorite timer for kids, by the way.  It makes the fuzzy concept of time much more concrete! *affiliate link)  If they don’t come up with a reasonable number (“14 hours!”), you may have to give a few suggestions and let them choose from those.

After scaffolding your kids or your class through a few of these interactions, soon you’ll find them using the phrase on their own a lot more, and asking you to play referee a lot less!

Want to teach more turn-taking skills?  Read Let’s Make a Deal: Teaching Children the Art of  Trading, here on NJC!

read along sized

If empowering kids as problem solvers interests you, you’ll love section 1 of this year’s Read Along, It’s OK Not to Share and Other Renegade Rules for Raising Competent and Compassionate Kids (*affiliate link).  I’ll be posting about Section 1 on January 28th, and would love to incorporate your thoughts in my discussion with author Heather Shumaker shortly after.  So pick up your copy and jump in!

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29 Comments

Filed under Positive Guidance and Social Skills, Uncategorized

29 Responses to Nine Words to End Fights Over Toys

  1. Meegan

    Oh my… another great post! thank you I want more :-)

  2. Jennifer McDaniel

    OMG! How I needed to read this today! I have a two beautiful, young girls (2 years and 1 years old…15 months apart) and we have just started this phase around my house. This information is going to help me navigate the waters of sharing and teaching them how. You may have just saved my sanity…at least with this issue. :-) Thank You!

  3. So important to remember!
    In your section about if they don’t give it up right away I try a few other things too… A few phrases I have used along the way “respect that your friend is waiting for that toy.” (I know respect is a big vague word but if it’s used consistently they know what it is, you could also use remember). “Are you going to be a long time or a short time?” (using arms motions to visualize).

    Also I usually try to redirect the one waiting telling them the other child is playing with that right now lets go find something else to play with, which usually gets their mind off of it.

  4. Using the proper language is crucial for these types of situations. Always make sure to empower the children to make the right decision, but they must also learn to play well with others. Be specific and to-the-point with how you address them and never scold or punish!

  5. I love this idea – and use it often with my daycare kids. I find that it really takes the pressure off of kids, which often leads to them choosing to share on their own!

  6. This is great. I’ve been trying to teach our son to be giving and gracious when another child is in our home (because he always gets to play with his toys, the other child doesn’t) and I think your sentence is the icing I might need on my cake.

    I will be implementing this!

  7. Brenda

    As an Early Childhood Conultant and Mother of 3 boys, I preach, practice and teach this every day. Well said. I truly dislike the phrase “use your words”

  8. chloee

    great tip thank you! I am going to introduce it to my 3 1/2 year old. My issue is how do I get HIM to share – he won’t let his baby brother play with his toys and has just started daycare and didn’t want to share. Any tips PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE?

  9. Becki W

    I LOVE this and use it in my classroom quite often! When a child comes to me saying, “He’s not sharing!” I almost always reply with, “Use your words, tell him: Can I please have a turn when you’re done?” It works wonders! I can’t stand forced sharing (I think this bothers other teachers I work with) and feel children have to get used to waiting their turn and not getting everything the instant they demand it…we don’t need to raise entitled children. My rule is if someone had it first, it’s their turn. You can ask to be next but I won’t force them to share. Most preschool children will not play with the same toy all day, so I’ve never had any issues.

  10. Nancy

    THANK YOU! This will be the topic of our next staff meeting…. I love it. You hit the nail on the head. My staff gets so frustrated over “sharing”(especially my toddler teachers)…. you brought new words and made it much easier.

  11. Theressa

    I teach my kids to respond with “When I’m done.” The child who is asking for a turn feels like they have been heard and the child who is playing still has the power to decide when they want to share. Usually they say “When I’m done” and hand over the toy very quickly. Sometimes it may take a while but they continue to say “When I’m done” so the other child knows they weren’t forgotten. We hardly have fights over anything.

  12. Love it. Love It’s Ok Not To Share too! I need to join your read along. I shared some of my favorite advice from the author of that book last week… but am still learning and need to actually read the whole book. Great tips!

  13. What a wonderful post! I totally agree with everything you’ve said here- and that timer is also my favorite! I used it for years as an SLP and am now using it with my three-year-old twins. Thanks for yet another great article :)

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  15. Ripeka

    The concept of adults making children share things always makes me laugh a bit… as if adults are really good at sharing their stuff. I agree with this post and think its great for the smaller stuff (and where power is the issue) but I also believe that children shouldn’t have to share their truly prized and possessions with other children . After all, most adults won’t share their special stuff all that willingly. For example, we don’t loan our $2000 tent because people usually don’t know how to take care of it and something will always come back damaged. I am talking about the exception to the rule here – most things can and should be shared in both adult and child land – just not the special things that matter.

    • notjustcute

      Such a good point! I think it is totally within a child’s right to choose not to share something that belongs to them. Absolutely! This script works best with items that are shared in common. Sounds like you’d love the read-along book, It’s OK NOT to Share! Great book!

  16. goodparenting!

    MAY I have a turn when you’re done please is even better; then we teach them proper grammar along with manners and sharing! Awesome post, thank you!

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  18. Denise

    “Can I have a turn when you’re done please?”
    I read this article (and bookmarked it) months ago & I just wanted to say this phrase totally works for my 3 year old twin boys! (they just turned 3 last month.) One of them asks & the other one says “okay” and immediately gives the toy or book or object to the one who asked. It’s amazing! We haven’t had to use a timer but I will keep that in mind if it stops working so easily.
    Thank you so very, very much! They don’t always want to share and they fight over toys often. Life is so much better and easier in our house now. And the little quarrels are so easy to end once I remind one of them to say this phrase.
    Thank you again for this article! It makes for a happier household! We appreciate it! :)

    • notjustcute

      Thank you so much for telling me about your experience! I had the same experience when I introduced it in my preschool classroom. Really amazing what happens when we give kids the tools and allow them to do some of the problem-solving themselves!

  19. Rachel

    Love this and I will use it.

    However it’s ok not to share especially when the item is not ‘owned’ by either child. If my son wants to play with a dinosaur at toddler group for the full hour then he can. Real life isn’t about getting things someone else has just because you want it.

    In our home our children have special toys each but the rest of the toys belong to mum and dad and are for everyone to play with. Whoever is playing with these toys can have them for as long as they want. If you have the other child’s special toys and they want them back then they have to be given back – that’s real life.

    It’s such a balance teaching kids social skills. It’s always good to share ideas on teaching these different skills.

  20. Ashley

    I like the concept of giving each child power. With my 3 yr old son & my nephew 5 months older I had been using taking the toy away from them once a fight broke out over it. There were a few grumbles the first time it happened but once they learned that this would be the outcome they make more of an effort to work it out amongst themselves I’ve noticed, without me having to referee.

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  22. Mary

    I have 4 and 6 yr old boys and this is exactly how we handle sharing and it’s worked great for us. They also each have a place for there “prettys” special belongings that they do not have to share.

  23. Maraty Solikha

    Ups,none of these ideas work to my 2 yo son :( any other idea please . . .

  24. dvadvo@aol.com

    I’ve used that phrase in my 3/4 yoa SS class for years, I had to explain it this way to adults who would tell a child they had played w a toy long enough….If you are reading a book and some one else wanted to read it, I would not just tell you it was time for you to give the book to the other person, the other person would have to wait until you are finished or placed it down or handed it to them. Why would you expect a child that is playing with a toy to just give it to someone else when they are still playing with it….that is why you ask the person if you can read/play with the book/toy when they are done…evision a “light bulb” going off here. It works amazingly well.

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