Sharing and Saying “Sorry”

Sharing and Saying “I’m Sorry”

by Cindy Finch, written in 2013

Sharing I know that some topics around the school are: sharing, saying “I’m sorry,” and compliance with adult expectations. My perspective is that learning can take time when it comes to these complex social/emotional issues, especially if we want what is learned to be supportive of healthy development. Children often need several similar experiences in order to develop strategies for handling common and often reoccurring social situations. Our job, as parents and teachers who support children, is to plan for our own response, take the long-view, and try to find some sort of consistency in what we are teaching.


Sharing: In groups of children, and sometimes in families, getting enough of what you want can be an issue. It is tempting to respond to a child not wanting to give up a toy by imploring (or demanding or lecturing) that they must share. How do children come to understand sharing, and thereby learn to do it? First and foremost, letting children be the recipient of adult sharing (“I’m sharing my cookie with you”) is one of the most simple and effective ways to begin to teach the concept of sharing.

One of the most compelling pieces of research about sharing that I’ve seen says that young children can come to understand “sharing” as “giving up what you want” because that might just be what we are asking children to do when we ask that they share with another child. Is that want we want to teach young children? It might seem that we do in the heat of the moment, but from the perspective of a whole life that will be lived with this learning at the foundation, it doesn’t seem healthy for that to always be the result.

On the flip side, we don’t want children to become powerful and self-centered with toys in their social play, so a response if necessary—so what is going to be the most helpful? In most circumstances it is appropriate for a child to get to finish what he is doing with a toy without being forced to give it up.

One teacher shared this experience with two children playing with toy cats: “One child was playing with 7 cats and one child only had 1. I asked the child with 7 cats if she needed all her cats. The answer was a definite yes, increasing the sadness of the other child. I then asked the child with 7 cats to give the child with 1 cat some of her cats WHEN she didn’t need all of her cats. With the pressure being off the child with more cats, she gave the other child so many cats that now the scale was tipped the other direction—and both children were happy with this result.” The fact of sharing is an adult suggestion; the child could choose the sharing would happen.

You might be wondering if there are ever times when it is appropriate to impose sharing on children. There are aspects of sharing that I think require more overt adult management. That happens when 1) children try to exclude other children from play with materials in hurtful ways and 2) when a child is never finished and, therefore, can never share.

In the first scenario, the child excluded from play with materials should be supported by adults. Sometimes that support might be helping the child find another set of materials to use; most of the time an appropriate response will help children find some role within the play that she is trying to enter with similar or related materials.

In the second scenario where a child never quite gets around to sharing, the next time the materials come out the child who never got a turn previously gets the first turn. These are appropriate ways for adults to manage sharing and turn-taking. Children come to see these adult actions as “fairness” when we do a good job of it!

Does everything have to be shared? This is where home and school are different. All school materials belong to everyone. At home, certain things belong to certain people. It is ok for a child to get to decide that a toy is not a sharing toy when friends visit—so long as the same child decides that a good number of things will be shared. Parents can help children make these decisions.

The early childhood years are birth to age 8. Throughout these years, children are learning to see and understand situations from the perspective of another person (for example, how it feels to not have what you need because someone else has it). Perspective-taking is a major developmental task for young children and it doesn’t happen consistently for children until they are approaching middle childhood. It is that hard and it takes that much experience and adult support for sharing to be learned.

As in most issues of teaching or parenting, knowing and respecting development is critical to finding a strategy that is helpful to children. In the case of sharing, understanding what young children want and need developmentally and applying this understanding in our response to these common social situations means giving children opportunities to choose. When we respect a child’s choice, we can structure the support we provide children in ways that help children build relationships with other people—and share. And that is an outcome that works for everyone.


Saying “I’m sorry” What is it we want when we ask that children express sorrow for a mistake they’ve made? Do we want them to understand that other people feel hurt or bad when we wrong them? Are we asking them for some sort of act of restitution? Are we concerned for social appropriateness? Each of these is a common and reasonable desire on the part of adults who are concerned with teaching young children. I’ll admit right now that I taught my children to apologize when they were at fault—to me, to a sibling, to a friend. I even modeled it by apologizing to them when I was at fault. It is important in my family for everyone to take responsibility and express concern. Mistakes are not the end of the world, but I wanted my children to take responsibility and know socially acceptable ways of expressing regret—then move on. That’s a family value of mine and many families. I’d feel funny about sending my children out in the world without the experience of honestly verbalizing an apology within the safety of our family and in these first, important relationships.

However, TCS teachers (including me, with my teacher hat on) never ask that children apologize. What is happening in classrooms instead, if these teachings are an important part of growing up? I’ll be the first to admit that my concern as a parent in this instance was on teaching socially expected behaviors—I wanted my children to fit comfortably and do the expected thing in their social interactions. It really sounds superficial, when you think about it. And, that is why you will find teachers being much more detailed and specific with children in this educational environment. We have learning goals that go along with the experiences that might, in other settings, be settled by an apology. We want children to be empowered through empathy rather than frozen by guilt, to act on behalf of someone who has been wronged rather than walk away after using a pat phrase, and to show concern for a peer rather than hope that an adult doesn’t know that s/he was involved.

So, children at TCS come to expect to have to check on someone who has been hurt, to be asked to speak out about what they need, feel, or even, don’t want. They expect to have to act to help someone feel better—wet paper towels work for hurts of all kinds. And TCS children do it willingly and cheerfully because they know that the same will happen for them another time. It is part of being a member of the community—part of caring for each other.

Apologies happen, because children have grown up in families such as mine where it is part of what happens. But genuine interactions don’t stop with social graces. Fortunately, my children went to The Children’s School and their education (in this and many areas) was enriched by the thoughtfulness of the teachers and the social interactions they experienced. To me, the TCS philosophy supports learning goals for children that are deep and well-considered. Whether it is genuinely showing concern for a classmate or feeling a deep excitement about curriculum that is more academic in nature, our focus is on the experience of each individual child within that classroom community. And . . . for that quality of education, no apology is necessary.