Other parents are always asking me how to teach sharing and almost always it’s a mother of a child under the age of two wanting to make sure their child knows how to share. Why?
Because as adults we want to be helpful and to be aware of both the needs and the desires of others. Therefore, we feel like we must teach sharing because want to instill in our children from an early age that “we are sharing people” where hopefully they learn to not be greedy, possessive, mean adults… right?
But teaching a toddler to share is hard. Why?
Not just because it’s human nature to want to keep the things we love and like, but because it’s also not really developmentally appropriate for a young child. At two or even three.
When kids learn to share it’s often different than adult sharing
It reminds me of a time in the park when my oldest was just three and a friend’s daughter was two.
As we were watching the kids play in the sand, my friend angrily came up to me saying “You know, what Jenn just did was not right. She took a toy from Violet and gave her something different.”
I half laughed, “Wait, what? What’s wrong with that? She asked if it was ok to trade for a bit.”
“You should teach your child to share. Not take things.” She argued as I tried to explain that what Jenn did was exactly in line with learning to share on a developmentally appropriate timeline.
But from the adult perspective, we should share without needing anything from it.
What I would do is not actually what I expect my kids to do because we have learned those skills over time. Whereas, for children, it is healthy and normal to not only not share but to also ease into the sharing process by trying to seek out a trade.
A little background on how kids develop a sense of ownership and sharing
Young kids don’t understand, know the meaning of, or really care about sharing when an item is simply “up-for-grabs” and the idea of ownership isn’t understood.
“Other-oriented sharing” happens when a child chooses to share in order to benefit the recipient. In the early years, children are not as much outwardly focused as we may think. This other-oriented sharing starts appearing at age two, but only in the context of true sharing where the child doesn’t have to give something up to someone else, rather they split the food or use an item simultaneously with the other person. It’s a matter of engagement and not ownership.
The idea that a toy belongs to someone and therefore seemingly has rule associated with it, is something that comes about around age 2 or 3. This is also when children start demanding that something is “mine” or “yours” and research even suggests that the struggles over possessions and the kids that will scream for their own things are also the most likely to share. This is because they’re starting to understand ownership both for themselves and for other. If they know something is truly theirs, they understand the item is not permanently relocating; rather, it’s just being shared for a short time.
While many adults believes it’s our duty to force them into sharing in order to teach it, natural sharing happens both through developmentally appropriate strategies to teach sharing, but also just by growing up and interacting more with other kids. This is because sharing requires emotional understanding and that only develops with time and practice.
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Ways to nurture emotional intelligence and habits to teach sharing
These are just a few ideas to teach developmentally appropriate ways to learn to share in kids of all ages.
Set the example.
It’s the obvious and easy way to make sure the kids around you learn to share. As adults we can showcase the needs of others and empathy towards those needs by sharing what we have and narrating exactly what we’re doing and why.
“Our friend is thirsty and I have some water in the stroller. I am going to share some water with them because we have some and they do not!”
It’s just simple, everyday moments that lead to discussions about sharing and empathy.
Reiterate that it’s ok to not share sometimes.
We all have treasures so special we won’t share them, even as adults. It’s normal to have those special things at any age. So sometimes as a mom I don’t want to share my last bite of cookie. And I don’t have to.
Likewise if my kids have a really special necklace or maybe they have earned a special treat, I am not going to force them to give it up.
“Can we trade?”
As mentioned in my story previously, this is a strategy that helps kids on both sides of the situation. There is the idea that everyone gets to play or that everyone should eat, but maybe a deal can be made where trading means sharing for a short time or sharing a piece of food.
The communal toy rule.
We live in 900 square feet with 4 kids. For everyone to have a hoard of toys, blankets, and stuff is just not feasible. Therefore in our home the rule is that everything is everyone’s responsibility and there is shared ownership.
This develops community which research has shown speeds the understanding and implementation of sharing in young children.
“Can I borrow that when you’re finished?”
This usually isn’t developmentally appropriate until around ages 4-6 because of the understanding of time and patience, but it’s always a great way to teach children to not just grab toys from other children.
Off limits to anyone else toys or “It belongs to mom/dad.”
Just like the idea that it’s ok to not share, it’s also ok to have rules around certain items when friends are over. Maybe you know a certain toy triggers your child, then maybe it can be labeled as something that’s off limits for a time.
Similarly, we teach our children that mom and dad own it. [But could be applied to the preschool the church, the playground]. This helps ease some of the tension about having to leave behind a toy or understanding the rules that surround a certain object. It also makes it easier when shopping to help kids understand that the store doesn’t just share their stuff. It belongs to the store and the toys have to “stay with their friends”.
More on emotional intelligence
Resources & References
Brownell, Celia A et al. “Mine or yours? Development of sharing in toddlers in relation to ownership understanding.” Child development vol. 84,3 (2013): 906-20.
Brownell, Celia A et al. “Socialization of Early Prosocial Behavior: Parents’ Talk About Emotions is Associated With Sharing and Helping in Toddlers” Infancy vol.18,1 (2012): 91-119.
Have meltdowns when asked to share? Here’s how to help with those big emotions:
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Kara is an author and advocate for positive, grace-filled parenting. She is homeschooler to her 4 children living on a farm in New England. She believes in creative educational approaches to help kids dive deeper into a rich learning experience and has her degree in Secondary Education & Adolescent Childhood Development. She is passionate about connecting with and helping other parents on their journey to raise awesome kids!