The first time I walked into a Montessori environment, I noticed an evident absence of duplicate materials on the work shelves. A material was also not pre-assigned to a child by the guides. This meant that the children must somehow learn to “share” the materials. Yet, I rarely saw them squabbling over the use of a material.
I marvelled at how the children understood that if a material is in use, they will have to wait for their turn. They understood what it means to respect the working space of others and how to appropriately observe others working. They understood that most materials are to be used by one person at a time and which materials may be used jointly with permission. At the corner of the room, some older children were seen working together. Occasionally, I could hear them discussing how they would work jointly. At another corner of the room, I could hear the younger children reminding each other what should have been the right order of business. I was awe-struck.
Surely, none of these arose by merely instructing the children to “please share”. I wondered how this came about and whether this can be applied to and reinforced in the home environment.
Summarised below are my thoughts gathered over the years on how some principles related to sharing that were observed in the Montessori classroom, may be applied to the home environment. I do hope you find some of them beneficial for your family.
Some things cannot be shared: Prioritise respect for others instead
Contrary to a common approach on sharing among children, it is a reality that not all things can be shared. Like the Montessori classroom, there are a number of things or activities at home that cannot be shared. For example, using the telephone, computer, cutlery or personal toothbrushes, and access to diaries, ongoing individual work assignments or projects. It is therefore more essential for the growing child to first learn the importance of respecting the feelings and space of others than to have the child be force-fed with an unrealistic, misguided notion that all things must be shared. This virtue is also particularly relevant in adulthood, so it is important that the home environment provides opportunities for the child to develop this virtue.
Have some family guidelines on sharing
There are things or activities at home that can obviously be shared or done jointly. For example, watching the television or eating a large cake. Some activities can be shared by alternating between users. For example, taking turns to run a marble down a structure. Some activities such as baking a pie, can be shared by breaking the activity into smaller tasks and allocating those tasks to family members.
It is helpful for a child to learn to distinguish between the different categories of things/activities at home and to know some guidelines when managing these things/activities. This will help the child in future to decide whether and how sharing may be accomplished. It is useful for these guidelines to closely mirror what a rational person would do in reality. It also helps that everyone at home are on the same page regarding these family guidelines.
The guidelines may vary between families depending on each family’s values and lifestyle. In our home, we have broadly grouped things/activities into six categories. Here are some guidelines we use for each of these categories.
– Guidelines for Category 1: Things that cannot be shared simultaneously
These may include the use of the telephone, the computer, the bathroom or cutlery, access to reference materials or stationery for individual assignments, and playing with common-use toys (such as small puzzles) that are available in limited quantities. Like in the Montessori classroom, our children are expected to wait for their turn. They may communicate to the first user of their intention to use that item after the first user is done. The first user will have to agree to do so.
– Guidelines for Category 2: Things that belong to others and cannot be shared
These may include personal toothbrushes, diaries, ongoing individual assignments or project work, personal belongings (especially fragile items that may not be age-appropriate for younger siblings). A guideline we use with our children is for them to first ask the owner. They may access the item after the owner agrees and must return that item to the owner after use. If the owner disagrees, this must be respected.
– Guidelines for Category 3: Things that belong to others and can be shared
These may include age-appropriate toys/books belonging to a person through gifts or passed down by the older sibling. Here, the person who wishes to access the toy/book can ask if he may do so after the owner is done. The owner is encouraged to consider granting access on this basis and his promise must be carried out within the day. If granting full access seems challenging for the owner, he may choose to limit access by say, viewing it jointly with the other person or decide on a reasonable time period access is granted. The owner’s choice will be respected and the item must be returned to the owner after use. The sharing of toys/books is an area that is possibly the most commonly disputed among children in the home. This guideline was therefore necessary in our home to minimize the potential downward spiral of continuous non-sharing among siblings, while ensuring that the essential principle of respect for others is maintained.
– Guidelines for Category 4: Things that can be shared through joint usage
These may include watching the television, sharing food or playing with common-use toys (such as legos and blocks) that are available in sufficient quantities. We find it necessary to demonstrate joint usage for the younger children, who may still be developing spatial awareness or learning to understand the possibility of dividing something into portions. It may be helpful to point out similar instances in the past where this was done successfully. We do find that this eventually becomes second nature for the child with practice, occasional reminders and age.
We do have a special guideline for the last, remaining portion of food on the family meal table, where we would generally first offer to everyone on the table the option of having the last portion before helping ourselves to it.
– Guidelines for Category 5: Activities that can be shared by taking turns
These may include taking turns to throw the ball, hug daddy, run a marble down a structure or roll a toy car. Again, we do find it necessary to demonstrate taking turns for the younger children, who may still be learning the concept of time. It may also be necessary to have an older person facilitate when it is time to alternate between users.
– Guidelines for Category 6: Activities that can be shared by breaking it down into smaller tasks and allocating
These may include activities such as baking a pie, preparing the holiday bag, folding the laundry or sorting through recyclable waste. The younger child may be shown how this can be accomplished. For the older children, we could encourage them to come up with ways to break down the activity into smaller tasks and have them decide among themselves how tasks are allocated.
Start young, model and remind with composure
Introducing these guidelines to the youngest child can be particularly trying. We started with the guidelines that reflected respect for others first, using phrases such as “we will have to wait for our turn”, “this is for the older children”, “this belongs to ___. We will have to ask him/her first”. There will initially be some extent of resistance. While we hold our breath and pray for less than more, it also helps to model the appropriate behaviour, to remind when they forget and to keep the approach as consistent as possible. There is also a need to carefully balance against the expectations of the older children that the youngest child conforms to the same guidelines as a matter of fairness. The phrase “she is still learning” has helped our older children frame what they may occasionally perceive as an apparent injustice. It helps when the older children see that the youngest child is being reminded of the same guidelines they follow. Interestingly, we also find our older children mimicking the way we remind the younger ones. Hence, maintaining our composure as best we can is important, even when we run out of steam, life bars and caffeine.
Beyond guidelines, allow sharing to come from within
Having this set of guidelines does not spare my home from occasionally becoming a war-zone when impulse and strong emotions take over. Yet, unlike merely instructing a child to “please share”, such guidelines provide a sense of order at home that is essential for the growing child. As the child matures, I do find them occasionally stepping outside their comfort zone to share even when they are not obliged to, and occasionally choosing to reciprocate that gesture. I believe it is in these moments that they truly experience the joy of sharing. It is my hope that through this joy, they will gradually grow sufficiently motivated to consider sharing tomorrow, sharing with the less fortunate and to question established boundaries when new possibilities of sharing arise in their adulthood. After all, it really is from within (and not by mere instruction) that the seed for a peaceful future can come to fruition beyond the classroom/home and into the world.