Toddlers, Sharing, and Unintended Consequences

Toddlers and sharing is like mixing water and oil - unless forced, the two don’t naturally come together. There are, however, seemingly endless amounts of advice encouraging parents to do just that - force their toddler to share. But when toddlers are forced to share, how come this doesn’t translate into sharing or generosity when they older?

When parents witness their kids helping a friend, their hearts are filled with pride. But what informs this behavior in children? A lot of advice recommends that parents encourage, coerce, or force their young children to share. But while that approach may get children to give up their toy in the moment, what are the messages that young children absorb? And why, then, do children struggle with sharing later on?

As Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D. explain in Smart Love, “The changes that occur between your child’s first and third birthdays are both thrilling and challenging for you and your child. During these years your child will make lightening progress in learning to negotiate the world by walking and talking. As all parents know, children of this age possess an unswerving determination and are convinced they are so powerful that they can do and have anything.”*

It’s important to remember that a child’s mind is nothing at all like an adult’s. It takes all of childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood for minds to fully development. Although toddlers are beginning to walk and talk, they experience the world completely different from adults. For example, young children truly believe that everything they see, hear, and touch is ‘mine’, because to a young mind - why wouldn’t it? This conviction is normal, temporary, and a part of development.

But when children are forced to share by having a toy taken away, the child developmentally cannot comprehend the intended message about sharing. What they see and understand instead is taking. As Kelly Perez, Director of Smart Love Preschool explains, “when young children are forced to share by taking a toy away, they will, in turn, go and take a toy away from another child because that is what is being modeled for them. It’s not sharing.”

Parents do not need to rush toddlers through this phase because being able to consider other’s feelings will naturally develop with age. Between the ages of 3 and 4 the joy of friendships emerge and with it children’s growing ability to empathize. Not until then are children able to consider the feelings of others.

Forcing toddlers to share not only models taking, but it also affects their self-esteem. To illustrate a young child’s experience when forced to share, imagine inviting a close friend to your home and when the friend leaves, she takes your favorite pair of shoes without asking. It’s not only incomprehensible that a friend would do such a thing, but it’s offensive and hurtful. Given the development of a toddler, they too experience the same confusion and hurt feelings when forced to share.

“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.”*