Sharing is often a big topic among parents of toddlers and preschoolers. There are two big motivations for wanting our little ones to share. The first is that we naturally want to raise generous, kind people who think about the wants and needs of others. The second, if we’re being completely honest, is that it makes us look good when they share with others, and any opportunity to shine as a parent in a world that’s always telling us what we’re doing wrong is golden to us. The truth is, though, that developmentally, young children aren’t ready to share. They’re naturally possessive of their things, and the ability to put himself in the other kid’s shoes is still a few years down the developmental line.
Go to any playgroup, daycare, or home with multiple children and you’re likely to hear the words, “You need to share now.” Well-intentioned parents sometimes force sharing in the hopes to teach this valuable lesson, but forced sharing is a quick solution that doesn’t reap lasting benefits. In fact, it may do just the opposite! Forcing your child to share may make her less likely to share in the future. When she is forced to give up a toy she was engrossed in playing with or an item that is beloved to her, she learns that sharing feels bad. Children, of course, want to avoid things that make them feel bad. She may become even more possessive of her things, feeling desperate to hold on to what she is attached to. In addition, forcing her to share doesn’t teach proper boundary setting. It’s important for children to learn that it’s okay to say “no” or “not yet.” Here again, we hold expectations of children that we don’t hold of ourselves. I will not share my car with a complete stranger who comes up and asks for a turn with it. I would share my cell phone with someone who needs to make a call, but it would be rude for them to ask for it while I’m in the middle of a call! I’m not going to trade my grandmother’s tea set for the vase you bought at Home Goods. It all seems very silly when you consider forced sharing with adults, doesn’t it?
In our efforts to raise kind, considerate, fair people, what can we do if we don’t force them to hand over the toy pronto? Here are some ideas.
1. Be patient. Willingness to share is really a developmental milestone. While we can encourage young children to be fair and generous, toddlers and preschoolers are very much self-oriented. It isn’t naughtiness but a matter of brain development. Understand that the toddler who snatches toys from others or clings to what he has while yelling “mine!” may very well be Mr. Thoughtful in a few short years.
2. Encourage turn-taking. Rather than insisting that Emma gives the doll to Lily immediately just because Lily asks for it, teach her to use assertive phrases like “you can have a turn next” or “I’ll give it to you when I’m done.” Heather Shumaker, author of It’s OK Not to Share, say, “It helps kids stand up for themselves and learn to set boundaries on other kids. What a terrific life skill. How many of us as adults have trouble saying “no?” When the first child drops the toy and moves on, remind her that Ella’s waiting for a turn (a great lesson in courtesy and awareness of others). The best part of all is when the first child willingly hands over the toy—it’s a joyous moment for both kids. That’s the moment when your child experiences the rush of good feelings that comes from being kind to others. It’s true generosity. It’s a warm feeling. One she’ll want to repeat over and over – whether a parent is watching or not.”
She also addresses the waiting children, saying that waiting is hard for impulsive 2-5 year olds but is also an excellent life skill to learn. She goes on to say, “Don’t be afraid of a few foot stompings or tears. Learning to control behavior and express intense feelings appropriately is really the main job of early childhood. Impulse control (waiting for a toy and not grabbing) is a vital part of brain development and gets stronger through practice.” Read part two of It’s OK Not to Share for what to do when children take looooong turns.