This article was originally published on March 10, 2008.
Two-year-old Jenny has her cousin over to play. Her mom says, “Now share your cookies with Lisa.” She does, but she doesn’t get them back. A little while later Jenny’s mom says, “Now share your dolls.” Jenny is a little reluctant.
Sally Kotsopoulos spins this scenario to demonstrate how complex sharing is. It can mean lending or giving. It involves holding two ideas in your head (The car is mine, but my brother is currently in possession of it). And it requires an understanding of time (He will return the car later). Finally, there are things we don’t share, says Kotsopoulos, an Early Childhood Educator and childcare supervisor, “like our underwear or our hats.”
Despite the complexity, kids do learn to share. But, as Anita MacDonald of Stouffville, Ont., knows, it takes time. Her daughter Maggie, 18 months, “is terrible at it—she just grabs whatever she wants,” says MacDonald with a wry smile. Her son, Stephen, four, is getting there, and Hannah, six, has figured out that playing with a friend is more fun when you share.
Helping kids learn to share takes patience and deft but gentle coaching. Here’s what to reasonably expect—and how to help.
Billy is building with blocks at daycare when another two-year-old boy comes along and picks up a truck parked nearby. “Mine!” Billy cries out. “You weren’t using it,” counters his daycare teacher. Billy dissolves in a flood of tears.
Toddlers are in an egocentric phase of development, just starting to recognize themselves as individuals with their own things. They are beginning to explore what it means to possess something (Billy may have been planning to use the truck), and they haven’t quite grasped the idea that some things belong to other people. “That’s why you hear them saying MINE!” explains Kotsopoulos.
Give-and-take is hard for kids this age, who have yet to gain a clear understanding of time or a sophisticated grasp of language. “You can have the doll back in a few minutes” means little to a two-year-old.
How to help your toddler learn to share
• Be a good model. “Sharing is about more than possessions,” says Kentville, NS, psychologist Kim O’Connor. “If we parents share our time and things, our kids will learn to do it too.”
• Talk about feelings. Asking “Are you afraid you won’t get a turn?” or “Are you worried you won’t get the truck back?” helps a toddler recognize his own feelings; over time this recognition will translate into the ability to read and respond to the feelings of others. Toddlers are good at reading facial expressions, but not at naming the feelings they see, says O’Connor. When reading a story, you might ask, “Why does the bunny look sad?”
• Be right there on the floor with them. When two little people want the same thing, says Kotsopoulos, try saying, “Could Sally play with the horses when you’re finished with them?” Or offer a choice: “Would you like to share your red car or your blue car?”
• Make it more concrete. Sharing is pretty abstract for toddlers, observes Halifax’s Julie Fraser, mother to Phoebe, four, and Eleanor, two-and-a-half. “They understand it as ‘You have to give it to me’ or ‘I have to give it to the other kid.’ I talk more about waiting and taking turns.”
• Don’t force the issue. When there was a tussle brewing, Oakville, Ont., mom Stephanie Adams says she would simply distract her daughter, Michelle (now three-and-a-half), with another toy.
• Talk about playdates ahead of time. But then put special possessions away. Identify items your child is comfortable sharing.
• Plan activities for two. A bucket of dinky cars, a sandbox with lots of shovels and sifters or a mound of playdough means there’s enough for both players.
At the local family drop-in centre, three-year-old Ava is holding two yellow school buses in her hands, when a little boy tries to take one. Ava clutches them more tightly. When the boy begins to cry, Ava’s mom explains to her daughter that the boy is upset because he wants one of the buses. Ava walks over to the boy, hesitates, but then hands one over.
A three- or four-year-old may share because he wants someone to be nice to him, or to avoid getting into trouble, says O’Connor. But this is also the stage when empathy begins to blossom. Preschoolers will still need lots of coaching to solve conflicts, but a better understanding of time helps. They’re starting to get the idea you can come back to something later.
How to help your preschooler learn to share
• Provide some tools. Give your preschooler words to negotiate and solve problems (“I would like a turn.” “I’m not finished with this yet”). Fraser has found that encouraging her daughters to ask and wait discourages snatching and hoarding. Sometimes “asking” is really a plea for mom’s help, says Fraser. “But after many such interventions, Phoebe is becoming a real negotiator in her own right.”
• Teach healthy ownership. O’Connor’s three-and-a-half-year-old son, Timothy, isn’t expected to share Betsey, his beloved stuffed cow. “I don’t push that one,” she says. Similarly, kids must also learn to respect other people’s things—to ask even if the owner isn’t using a toy.
• Follow toddler playdate rules. “You’ll still need two pairs of wings, two feather boas,” says Kotsopoulos, but try to encourage co-operative play, like taking turns on the slide.
Meagan is playing at Lily’s house. “Let’s play Barbies. Can I be this girl?” asks Meagan. “Sure,” says Lily. MacDonald observes that, like Meagan and Lily, kids really begin to share well when they realize that it makes the play more fun. If a child is having real difficulty sharing, says Kotsopoulos, there could be all kinds of reasons. What helps one child learn to share could discourage another. For example, some children from larger families are happy to share, while others may guard their possessions. Or maybe a child has been forced to share too many times.
Kids this age also have a strong sense of equity, says O’Connor. If there’s pizza being served up, a five-year-old will watch that everyone gets an equal share. Six- and seven-year-olds may be more concerned about merit (Who deserves a bigger piece of the pie?). “By eight, you’re starting to see benevolence (Who doesn’t have as much as I do?),” explains O’Connor.
How to help your little kid learn to share
• Celebrate success. Vicki Pereira, who teaches a blended JK/SK in Oakwood, Ont., says she will stop the class to point out examples of co-operative play.
• Don’t be a rescue ranger. “Sometimes you have to step back when kids are having trouble sharing. I might say, ‘It sounds to me like you’re having a problem. How are you going to solve it?’” says Pereira. You’re still modelling sharing, but it’s changing to more of a guiding or coaching role. “If we intervene all the time, kids never learn to work it out themselves. Or help them notice when someone is left out: ‘Lincoln isn’t having any fun. What should we do?’”
The ability to share grows as kids have good experiences with it. “When Maggie takes whatever she wants, Stephen and Hannah see it as OK because she’s just a little baby,” says Anita MacDonald. “They’re so proud. They know how to share because they’re so grown up.”
Of course, there will still be some bumps along the road. Pereira says she overheard one boy say, “This is kindergarten and we share everything, so give it to me now.”
Stay in touch
Subscribe to Today's Parent's daily newsletter for our best parenting news, tips, essays and recipes.