In the end, kids polarize: the stronger one gets stronger, while the weaker one gets weaker and whinier. In cases where both kids have a dominant streak, parents often end up, literally, with blood on their hands as kids battle to maintain the position of top dog. No matter how things shake down, kids usually learn the wrong strategies for solving problems if left to their own devices.
THE SKILLS OF GOOD PLAY SHOULD BE TAUGHT
Kids’ play is the foundation for all kinds of skills – including sharing, negotiation, collaboration and deferred gratification – that will carry over into adulthood. But these skills don’t hatch from under a rock! So, how do you teach kids appropriate getting-along-with-others strategies? By getting down on the floor with them and modelling appropriate collaboration.
For 10 or 15 minutes a day, try setting up little practice lessons in ‘how to play together’ for the kids. They work best if you can:
- Act as referee and peacekeeper – as well as playmate – to teach skills like taking turns, trading, negotiating, sharing and collaboration.
- Give the kids the opportunity to see what being pals looks like.
- Pick times of day and activities that ordinarily result in battles.
- Enforce the law with brief time-outs when needed. Don’t be afraid to do so.
DIVIDE AND CONQUER: TAKING TURNS
I consulted to a family who was at their wits’ end with the fights between five-year-old Dillon and three-year-old Brandon. For my first play session, I scouted around the house for toys that both boys really, really wanted – something that they’d be likely to fight over. The boys’ parents, Patti and Dan, knew for sure that the box full of toy cars would do the trick.
Sure enough, as I dumped them into a pile on the floor, both boys lunged for the cars. I physically stopped them.
“Wait a second,” I said as I firmly held their hands. My grabbing and holding their hands as I spoke was a subtle form of a time-out that lasted about 10 or 12 seconds.
“Do you know what we’re going to do first? Let’s keep all the cars right here for a second. We’re going to divide them up. I want us to pick and choose.”
The kids looked at me blankly. Dillon tried to grab a car, but I grabbed his hand again and said, “Hang on there, buddy. Do you want to play with some cars? What we’re going to do is to take turns. You’re going to pick a car, and then Brandon is going to pick, then it’s my turn. How’s that?”
Brandon – detecting a fight coming with his brother – started to get up and wander away. Retreating from play with his big, bullying brother had become a standard practice.
“Okay, Brandon, wait, wait, wait. Come here, have a seat.” I made him sit. “Can you pick a car now? Attaboy.”
Brandon stayed and picked a car — and then reached for another. I stopped him by grabbing his hand. “Okay, that’s it. Just one. Okay, Dillon’s turn.” Dillon picked a car. “Attaboy, Dillon!”
High-fives all around. Then, both boys had to wait a moment while I picked a car. And so it went, over and over, as Brandon, Dillon and I sorted through the entire pile of cars, about 30 in all – which meant that the boys had about 30 mini-opportunities to practise turn-taking.
These daily little rehearsal sessions helped the boys get into the habit of using more sophisticated skills. At the beginning, Dillon and Brandon didn’t trust each other. They grabbed for toys and clung for dear life to what they got because they were afraid of losing it. That’s why we needed a parent right in the middle of the two, to act as a referee, to actually demonstrate the act of sharing and to convince them that they’ll both get their fair share.
As the routine gets repeated, the situation becomes less adversarial between the boys and the grown-ups become less controlling. They start to see that when they give, they can also get and that it can actually be fun to play with each other. Dillon learns that he can give up some control and Brandon learns to trust that Dillon isn’t going to completely dominate him.
The skills of co-operative play start with parents and kids together on the living room floor. Your kids are watching your every move and they imitate you. When parents model how to play, kids watch and learn. This same theme – adult supervision and teaching – is the key ingredient at all ages. From playgrounds to prom parties, kids need to know that they are being watched. Of even greater importance is what they are watching. PC