by Annie Keeling, MFA
Grandma’s coming for the holidays and she always wants a kiss, even from the littlest member.
But maybe your child isn’t at a place in her development to freely give that kiss. Maybe a kiss is too close of an experience for anyone but Mom or Dad. Or maybe she loves to give kisses but is shy around Grandma who she only sees a few times a year.
Connecting with Touch
Touch, like kisses and hugs, are for the child to give. To force the child to kiss or hug anyone teaches him to use his body to please someone else, especially one in authority.
Instead of kisses and hugs, encourage a handshake, high-five, wave, etc. Empower your youngest child by suggesting two choices and let her pick. “Grandma is here and she looks so happy to see you. Would you like to wave or give her a high five?”
An older child might have fun developing a special handshake with a relative as the holiday event progresses.
Teach your child to be polite and respectful while still maintaining his own personal boundaries. Educate relatives and others ahead of time if possible. Explain your policy around touch. With a deeper understanding, there is less chance that the relative will feel left out or offended by your child’s reserved behavior.
Relatives often mean well with their comments and advice. Sometimes, you can respectfully nod and let them know you hear what they are saying. Other times, their comment might have a direct effect on your child. You can reframe the idea for your child then or at a later date.
Here are a few examples and some responses you can give instead.
Relative: “He's a difficult child.”
You: “He hasn’t learned that yet.”
Relative: "He's messy.”
You: Sing, “Wipe, wipe, wipe your hands.”
Relative: “She's Shy.”
You: “She’s learning to be around people.”
Relative: “You’re acting like a baby.”
You: “Do you want to be cared for like a baby right now?”
Relative: “Good job.”
You: “What a lot of time and effort making that tower.”
The holidays often bring children together in what you hope is joyful play time. Sometimes big emotions come out of the youngest kids, though, when you most want them to all get along.
Children under the age of 5 are trying to figure out how to play by themselves first and then how to play with others. They are most concerned about getting their own wants and needs met. Sharing isn’t a priority.
When toddlers grab an object and say “Mine!”, they are actually growing into a new stage. "Mine” is often one of the first words toddlers learn and an intellectual milestone; once a child understands the feeling of ownership, he is on his way to learning to share.
It’s not helpful to tell the child, “That’s not yours,” or “Actually that’s your brother’s toy” since this is a development phase they need to experience. Identifying ownership isn't a sign of selfishness -- it's a sign of knowledge. “It demonstrates a desire to understand the world," says Alice Sterling Honig, Professor Emerita of Child Development at Syracuse University.
Teaching a Child to Share
When children reach the age of 3 or 4, they understand that there are certain things that don’t belong to them. As they become more independent, they may be more possessive of their favorite items, even seeing them as extensions of themselves. They are developmentally ready, though, to learn more about sharing.
Share with You. One of the first places to teach sharing is with you. This will minimize frustration and tantrums that might be present with peers. Ask to play with one of your child’s favorite toys and let her know she can ask for it back.
Safe Space. Find a shelf or cabinet where your child can place some designated special items that she doesn’t want played with by others. Teach her that if she leaves those toys in another space, anyone is free to play with them. If the child is going through a phase where every toy is special and any sharing creates an issue, then you may suggest going outside to play – or even go to a more neutral location like a park, if possible.
Turn Limit. Practice taking turns, using a timer for a short amount of time for each person. Help engage the child who is waiting with another toy or activity. A turn limit is best to practice with someone you know well, perhaps a family member or good friend. It can be more difficult with a new friend.
Keep the Toy. This idea comes from a policy at some local preschools. If a child is playing with a toy, he gets to keep it as long as he wants. This provides a feeling of relief and security to that child, and also allows for deeper creative play with the toy or object. While this may be upsetting to another child who wants that toy, a caregiver helps them to wait, express their emotions, or find something else to play with. Imagine in the adult world if we felt pressured to share everything that was ours. “Nice BMW. Can I have it for a while?” There are actually items that we would rather not share. Learning to share is still an important skill when they are ready, yet this idea helps meet children where they are at developmentally. If you try this with a play group or at your house, help the children understand this new rule before playtime. Also, mirror back any upset emotions to let a child know you are empathetic and supportive of the difficulty of waiting or finding another toy. “You didn’t like that.” “I see you’re frustrated.” “You really want that toy.”
Pulling Cards. When there is more than one child, whether it’s a sibling or play date friends, make an index card for each child with their name on it. Then when a situation presents itself for one child to go first, put the cards behind your back and pick one. The cards decide!
Play for the sake of play is the stuff of childhood. Knowing that play is how children learn and where they thrive is an excellent reminder for adults and gives permission (and necessity) for joining the kids. Some of the best memories are made when the adult relatives get in on the fun.
Annie Keeling, MFA