Mothering Moments

A Column by Gail Koehler

More On Taking Turns, Sharing, and Learning How to Wait

Since moving to Lexington, KY, four years ago, my family and I have enjoyed a unique opportunity: to be part of a preschool co-operative that has been parent owned and operated for over fifty years. We have all learned tremendous amounts in this setting-but I suspect we parents have learned far more than the children.

Part of the co-op experience is to work in the classroom with the children-we parents are co-teachers. Oh, and some days it can be challenging indeed. Recently, I reflected on the experience for the co-op newsletter. The result follows:

Ahh…the sound of children at work:
"She grabbed my scissors!"
"He's still riding the wagon! It's my wagon now!"
"I need that! Hey! I need that!"

The sound of adult attempting to help children while they work:
Child: "But I want the purple!" [screws up face and delivers this line with fierceness]

Adult-who-is-not-this child's-parent: "I hear your words. You would like to use the purple when _________ is finished with it." [pleased that phrases of approved pre-school language have occurred to her, adult takes two deep breaths; recites snatches of co-op philosophy under her breath and reminds self not to react to child-who is simply doing the work of being a child-as her own throbbing headache might prompt her to do]

Child [oblivious to the tremendous parental effort required to utter those words]: "I want the purple NOW!"

On days when it seems as if it's always someone else's turn instead of mine to go first, scream loudest, to possess, immediately, the heart's desire, I've grumbled: "I want a turn to be four again and yell and scream and holler." While indulging in this behavior seems at one level a selfish fantasy, if a circumstance presented itself when I could do this safely I suspect the result would be a person both emotionally healthier and better able to parent following her ideals. Co-op literature includes these stated goals: "we strive to give young children the skills and confidence they need to be able to: work well with others; respect themselves and others;…have a strong sense of their own worth and the valuable contributions that each individual brings to a group…; make good choices for themselves." I re-read these lines from time to time, as reminders to myself, as encouragement, as a corrective. Yes, I want this for my children. I want it for myself.

However: this is not how I was raised. While I know my parents "did the best they could with what they had at the time," many of the words and approaches I hear modeled at co-op-and I am now at co-op with my second son. Or maybe, more truthfully, because I have always appeared to be a "quick learner," I have used these words and phrases now for four years-but there have been many times that my mouth has uttered them while disconnected from the rest of me.

Because children are such good teachers, and because they are so adept at hearing what we mean and not just what we say, I am often called on, during these times, to practice yet again truly entering the world of the child. To be present in this moment, when the purple is really the most important color on the table, and when its possession must necessarily occur immediately.

So how did I handle my challenging work situation? I sat in one of the teeny preschool chairs. No longer towering above the child, I looked at his face.

"It's hard to wait," I said.

"I need the purple," he repeated, and looked right at me. I tried not to read "defiant challenge" on his face.

To tell the truth, I no longer remember exactly how we resolved our conflict. Perhaps the purple tray was free, and the other children at the table reminded us of that. Crisis averted. Or maybe on that day I had the resources to decide: "we could use another tray of purple paint here." I do remember, though, that after the work session at co-op was over, I went home with my child to lie down before taking a longer walk than usual to pick up my first grader from school. That evening, I called another mom from co-op she let me "decompress." At other times I've called another friend, a particularly wise father who has children who are now adults. He is exceptionally precious to me because he possesses a perspective over time, and yet remembers how specifically and acutely difficult a given day can be when children are young and needy. Some of the things he reminds me are:

- to help a child learn to take turns, I too need to have a "turn" to vent emotions (frustration, anger, sadness, disappointment). This needs to happen outside of my time with children: it is essential preparatory work.

- to assist a child learning to share, I need to cultivate generosity towards myself (sharing is so much easier in a climate of abundance)

- to accompany a child learning to wait, I must model a waiting, resting centeredness that allows me to be in the moment without anxiety or impatience.

Finally, I can accomplish none of these Herculean tasks when I am feeling spent, resentful, guilty or pressed by deadlines and demands. Many of us were fortunate enough to receive good advice when our children were infants, and were urged to allow ourselves to be mothered so that we might be strong mothers. As we move forward in this long journey of parenthood, it is wise to embrace any and all opportunities to be kind to ourselves, and to parent the preschooler who still dwells in our own hearts at least as well as we parent the children who inhabit our houses and our school.


Taking Turns

"May I make a suggestion?"

She was the mother of older children, and her calm in the midst of what I considered a chaotic drop-in visit was something I couldn't help but notice.

"Please," I answered, as I thwarted my now howling one-year old son in his attempt to scoop a toy away from another child. He strained against my hands in a desperate attempt to break away.

"Instead of asking children to 'share,' I use the term 'taking turns,'" she said. "When you share an apple with someone, you have less than you did before - part of it is gone. But to take turns with something. . . well, you get to possess the whole thing, if only for a moment. It seems to be a distinction even the little ones appreciate."

"Oh," I grunted. "Thanks. I'll use that." And my son pulled me away, like an over-eager, untrained puppy, in the direction of the latest shiny, must-have object he had just spied.

Unfortunately, this veteran mom's name is not etched in memory, but her advice stuck. Perhaps it was the newness of mothering a toddler that made my reception of her advice so complete. I know I was smarting from the embarrassment of both the utter intensity of my son's need for the toy that had prompted the advice, as well as how poorly I felt I had handled the situation. For the rest of the day, the phrase stayed with me. I felt like a ruminant, chewing on a cud of particularly succulent grass. "Taking turns. . .." Hmmmm....

Because I was starved for a script for this role that seemed so beyond my limited capacities, and because my vocabulary lacked any meaningful alternatives, I started using the term. I shared it with my mom friends at the playgroup we attended, and with the two new friends I made at the "Help! I Live With a Toddler" class in which we gratefully found a second home.

Wherever she is now, that originator of the taking turns advice, our thanks go out to her! We survived the toddler years of son #1, now a kindergartner, I am happy to report, often falling back on the wisdom of "taking turns." Even the boys have taken the phrase to heart, though not always as we adults might have intended. I will never forget pulling up in the car with my first son when he was about two. We were at a favorite playground, one that was just far enough away for a car ride to be necessary, and consequently one visited less frequently than my son wished. As we pulled up and he saw many other children playing on the equipment he held so dear, he practically broke out of his car seat in an anxious fury.

"MY TURN!!!" he bellowed to them as a group.

Well, I reflected ruefully, perhaps it was a teeny step forward from the more usual "MINE!!!"

But that's the interesting thing about taking turns. As a concept it has become helpful to us in ways we could not have foreseen initially. For example, it's useful to remind my sons, when returning a favorite video or book to the library (after an extended borrowing time, when we have renewed it as often as we're able and then beyond, so that now we owe a hefty fine), that now someone else can have a turn, and then it will be our turn again. My sister uses the phrase when she's waiting at a red light with an impatient preschooler in the backseat.

"Go! Go!" urges my niece.

"Look at the light," says her mom. "It's still red. It's not our turn to go yet. It'll be our turn soon."

Learning patience is a difficult, difficult thing even for us grownups, and having this reminder piped back to us in tiny voices can be just the jolt we need on a rushed day.

And then there's the tough task of getting a child to accept parent #2 when parent #1 has suddenly, inexplicably, become the only one who could possibly change a diaper, make lunch, do the bath.

"Daddy has to work all day. He doesn't get a chance to help out very much. It's his turn to have fun with you now," I say, wild-eyed, desperate. "Mommy needs to have a turn to go out right now, sweetie. She'll be back, and tomorrow she'll have a turn to do this again with you, too!"

I realize, at times, when I recite this calming little litany, that it's as much for my benefit as the child's.

Yes, there are days in my life when it seems as if it is always someone else's turn instead of mine, to go first, to scream loudest, to possess, immediately, the heart's desire. But all of this will change, it's changing even now, time is rushing past us like a locomotive. It will be my turn, soon enough, to come first a little, to get what I want when I think I want it.

My turn will come again.

If not this evening or this weekend or when school starts, then soon enough.

Copyright © 2001-2002 by Gail Koehler

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