Learning to Share—it’s a skill all parents want to instill in their children in the hope that they will grow up to be generous and considerate of others. Because of this desire, and society’s preconceived notions about how young children are supposed to behave – i.e., with the social graces of adults – parents are often put in the position of forcing their toddlers to share with other children.
This seemingly innocuous and very common practice of encouraging or coercing young children to share can produce the desired behavior in the moment — a child will give up the toy — but it also sends the wrong message to children and can make it harder for them to share as they get older. This is an example of a parenting technique that helps you in the moment (to achieve a short-term goal) but doesn’t help you with your long-term parenting goal (in this case, to raise children who willingly share). Parents understandably want their children to be kind and generous but unfortunately receive misguided advice that causes them to respond in ways that can actually interfere with children’s natural, age-appropriate development of sharing.
Raising children who are generous requires an understanding of your child’s mind and stage of development. It can be easy to forget that young children’s minds are very different than adults’ minds. We shouldn’t expect children to engage in adult like behaviors that they are simply not capable of doing due to their developmental immaturity. The inner well-being of young children is dependent on getting what they want when they want it — this is developmentally normal and temporary. So, when a toddler refuses to share a toy with another child, this is an age-appropriate behavior that they will outgrow if responded to accurately. By the ages of 3 to 4 years old, children become naturally more interested in sharing because friendships and caring about other’s feelings becomes more important to them than having things or always getting what they want.
What happens when toddlers are forced to share?
Instead of being “generous” and freely sharing, young children interpret being forced to share as “taking” and can model this behavior by taking from another child. Or a toddler may compliantly share but this comes out of fear of disapproval and not from a genuine desire to be generous with others.
On a deeper level, this feeling of having something taken from her negatively affects herself-esteem and the parent-child relationship. As Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D. explain in Smart Love: The Comprehensive Guide to Understanding, Regulating and Enjoying your Child, “When children are made to share and told not to grab before they are old enough to choose to be generous, they feel hurt by their parents’ demands and disapproval. These children will become increasingly driven to soothe themselves with possessions, or they will become fearful about expressing their desires.”
How to handle sharing among toddlers
So, what should parents do when confronted with a scenario like the following? Imagine you’re in a room with other children the same age as your child when your child makes a beeline to the toy she spies and ungraciously takes it from another child who is playing with it. The other child is shocked and bursts into tears and your child is relieved to have gotten her hands on the object. How best to respond?
Because children learn by imitation, kind caring responses that are tailored to their developmental stage teach them kindness and compassion toward themselves and others.
In the above example, it’s best to return the toy as diplomatically as possible without lectures or disapproval and find a replacement toy or way to engage your child in another fun activity, saying something like, “I’m sorry sweetie, but we need to return the toy back to the other child. Would you like to build a tower with the blocks?” Also, be sure to offer your sympathy and comfort to your child, which will let her know that she can count on your kindness when she is upset or having sad feelings.
Here are some other tips for handling sharing when toddlers are playing together:
When participating in a play group, try to find parents who understand and accept that it is normal for toddlers to refuse to share and want to grab other children’s toys.
When your child doesn’t want to share, he shouldn’t be made to feel badly or be forced to share.
If your child grabs a toy, he should give the toy back if the other child is unhappy, but he should not be made to feel badly, and every attempt should be made to comfort him. For example, you could say, “I know how much you wanted that toy, but Alice is playing with it now. Let’s give it back and I’ll help you find something else fun to do.”
Whenever possible, try to provide multiples of the most desirable toys. Or, if a particular toy caused a lot of squabbling in the past, put it away before other children arrive to play.
Modeling compassion, kindness, and generosity for your child is the template he will use when he is developmentally able to consider others’ feelings. Giving him the time and space to want to share on his own timetable contributes to his ability to be generous, kind, caring, and compassionate as he grows.
This is illustrated by the following quote from Drs. Martha Heineman Pieper and William J. Pieper, “Two-year-olds who are confident of their ability to cause their parents’ unconditional loving responses and who are never made to give up a toy they don’t want to share will become generous, caring friends sometime between the ages of three and four. By the time he is four, friendships with other children will be more important to your child than any particular possession. Your child will choose to share and not grab because he will emulate your kindness to him, and because he will increasingly realize that by being generous, he will have more friends and more fun.”
Smart Love: The Comprehensive Guide to Understanding, Regulating and Enjoying your Child, Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D., Harvard Common Press, 1999.