“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!
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!