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.”*
When children are not forced to share, on the other hand, this provides them the space and time to choose to be generous. As Kelly Perez describes, “these children don’t feel threatened when another child approaches because they never were forced to give something over. Their self-esteem and confidence remains intact because they do not experience sharing as a personal assault.”
Because conflicts with sharing often happen in social or public settings, it’s understandable that parents feel pressure to encourage their toddler to share. It is hard to see children cry and it’s very hard to feel like you or your child is the cause of another’s unhappiness. But preparing for these likely scenarios is the best solution. Try and avoid uncomfortable situations to preserve your child’s self-esteem. For example, if your child has a particular toy that is her favorite or most loved – if possible, buy a second one, this will help when another child wants the same toy (and also in the event your child loses it, you will have a backup.)
If your child grabs another child’s toy and the other child becomes upset, avoid responding negatively - try offering the other child another fun toy or activity. If the child is still upset and it’s clear you need to return the toy, “don’t have expectations that you’re going to reason with them” explains Kelly Perez, but rather provide a simple and sympathetic explanation that you need to return the toy and then offer a fun activity for the two of you to do instead. It could sound something like:
‘I’m so sorry sweetie, but we need to return the toy back to the other child. But you and I can build a super high tower with the blocks?!’
Then gently remove the toy and give it back to its owner. Be sure to offer your sympathy and cuddles to your child. Your comfort will let him know that he can count on your love when he is upset or having sad feelings.
When parents prepare for and try to avoid these tricky situations, their toddler’s self-worth is preserved and the love and care parents provide builds a foundation for an inner well-being that doesn’t fluctuate with the ups and downs of the day. Modeling compassion, kindness, and generosity to your child even when they are upset is the template that children will use when they are developmentally able to consider others’ feelings. Giving children the time and space to want to share on their own timetable contributes to the child’s ability to be generous, kind, caring, and compassionate as they grow.
“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, by Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D., Harvard Common Press, 1999