Sharing (or, more precisely, the lack thereof) is a common topic among parents and educators of young children.
Reading different Facebook groups, you’ll often find posts about children who won’t share and caregivers questioning how to help them. The advice given on those boards can vary widely from buying numerous copies of the same toy so everyone has one, to using a timer to set the amount of time a child can use a toy.
But what is sharing at its core and why do we ask young children to do it?
Developmental readiness for sharing
Sharing teaches cooperation, collaboration, and teamwork. Sharing with friends and family can increase the unity and bond you feel with them. Many acts of kindness involve sharing — of time, money, or resources. Personally, sharing can make us happier and live longer.
The ability to share is a developmental milestone. Just like you wouldn’t expect a 3-month-old to walk or a 2-year-old to read, you can’t expect your child to share until they are developmentally ready to share. I know, I know… somewhere out there is a parent or educator who is saying, but my child COULD read at 2 years old! However, just like any other milestone, there is an age range, but most children will not even begin to understand the concept of sharing until they are able to understand that others have a different point of view from theirs.
Consider the stages of children’s psychosocial development (psychosocial relates to one’s psychological development in, and interaction with, a social environment; in other words, how a child grows and relates to the society around him). Young children are naturally very egocentric. They have difficulty seeing anything outside their own point of view.
Egocentrism is very different than egotism. The egotist believes that she or he is superior to others. Egocentricity in young children is a developmental stage. They are egocentric not because they are selfish or self-centered, but because they are incapable of seeing things from another’s perspective.
Many researchers — for example, Piaget and Erikson — have shown this to be true. They have proven that during the ages of approximately 2 – 7 years old, children are slowly learning to understand that others have different thoughts, perspectives, and ideas than their own. During this period children will be resistant to parents and other caregivers asking them to share because they are only just beginning to understand the concept.
Is that to say that we shouldn’t ask our children to be giving with others? Should we not ask them to share their toys? No. Just like any other skill, sharing takes practice, time, and positive reinforcement. There are many things adults can do to help a child learn to share.
Tips for teaching sharing
1. Sharing is not just about objects
Sharing is not just about sharing your physical belongings. It’s not just about those favorite blocks or doll. Sharing is also about sharing time, turns, and themselves. Young children are just beginning to learn to take turns, to wait until daddy finishes the dishes to read a book or to share their time helping a grumpy friend feel better.
It’s very helpful for adults to model and encourage sharing of all kinds. So whether you are making soup to take to your sick neighbor or waiting in line at the grocery store, these are opportunities for you to teach your child about sharing in a natural way.
2. Teach the language of sharing
Early on, it’s important that your child hears the language of sharing. For example, I’ve worked with children in a multi-age environment. I had an infant and several toddlers, along with slightly older preschoolers together in my program. The infant’s needs often took precedence over many of the older children’s needs. When an infant needs to be fed or held or changed it’s obviously important to take care of those needs quickly.
Inevitably, the needs of the baby coincided with the toddlers’ and preschoolers’ needs. So, while I was feeding the baby, I would be talking to the other children, saying things like:
- “I know how frustrating it can be to wait, but right now it’s the baby’s turn. Soon it’ll be your turn.”
- “Can you help me with the baby by bringing me the wipes? Wow! What a good helper you are.”
- “Can you sing the baby a song while I’m changing her diaper? She’s not very happy right now.”
Give the children words for their feelings, frustrations, and actions. Praising their ability to share (whether it be sharing their time, their feelings, their toys, etc.) gives them the confidence to try it again.
I also made it a point to talk out loud to the baby when it wasn’t her turn. For example, when I was in the middle of serving lunch to 5 hungry children and the baby became fussy and cried, I would say, “just a minute, baby! Right now it’s their turn, but next it’ll be your turn,” or “hold on, baby, I just need to serve everyone their lunch and then it’ll be your turn.” This wasn’t really for the baby’s sake; it provided the older children with the language of taking turns. It allowed them to internalize the fact that they were all taking turns and sharing.
3. Play cooperative games
Playing cooperative games with your child is a great way to reinforce the concept of sharing in a fun, relaxed environment. Taking turns while playing a board game or putting together a puzzle can give children practice sharing with others. Even informal games you play with your toddler or preschooler such as rolling a ball back and forth across the room or taking turns adding a block to a tower can give your child another way to practice sharing.
4. Allow your child to not share in some cases
There are times when it’s perfectly okay for your child not to share. In these situations, it’s important for you to set up your child for success. For example, your friend is coming over to your house with her children. You know there are toys that are very special to your child. Make sure to put away the toys that are very special to your child so that they aren’t an issue or allow your child to put things in their room that they don’t choose to share and shut the door. Giving your child the space to keep certain things for themselves may help them be more willing to share their other toys.
5. Set your child up for success
Plan ahead and prepare your child for whatever situation is coming. Explain what will be happening in simple terms. For example, “Daddy’s friend Max and his kids are coming over this afternoon. When they get here they are going to play with you! How fun it will be to play together with your toys! I know that some toys like your teddy bear are very special to you. What do you think about putting Teddy away while your friends are here so he’ll be safe in your room?”
6. Positive reinforcement and direction
Just like with any other skill your child is learning, it’s important for you to be patient and offer positive reinforcement as your child learns to share. I know it can be embarrassing when your child loudly refuses to share their sand toys at the park or when your preschooler hoards all of the Legos at the table. Instead of escalating the situation and trying to force your child to share, diffuse the situation by bringing out something they can do cooperatively such as play dough or coloring. Change up the environment by bringing them outside. And remember, once your child is sharing, offer praise for their efforts!
In-class or home techniques to try
Here are some tried and true techniques that have been used by preschool educators for decades:
1. Have multiple of favorite toys
While this may be more practical in a group care setting, having multiples of favorite toys can take the pressure off. However, this doesn’t always work. Toddlers and preschoolers are unpredictable. They still, somehow, often fixate on “the one” even when all of the toys are identical. I’ve dealt with arguments over a specific yellow chair (when all the other chairs were also yellow) or the red playground ball (when all the other balls were also red).
2. Use a timer to take turns
Some educators set a timer for turn-taking. They will give each child a certain amount of minutes before they need to stop and give the toy to the next friend. This can be helpful because it takes out the adult element. The timer is to blame for your turn being over. However, a pitfall with this technique is that it stops a child mid-play which can be upsetting.
3. Allow children to play with a toy until they’re done and then share
In my program, this was the method I used most often. All of the children knew that if you chose a toy it was okay to play with it until you were done and then it was the next person’s turn. It wasn’t okay to hoard all of a certain type of toy and it wasn’t okay just to carry that toy around or hide it when you weren’t using it, but if you were actively using that toy, it was yours until you were done.
Through the years, I found that this technique took a lot of pressure off of me and the children. When they had control of the situation, they often shared more quickly and effortlessly than any time I asked them to share. The others learned that everyone who wanted a turn would get one. Obviously, this didn’t work smoothly all of the time. Toddlers and preschoolers aren’t known for their patience and understanding. I had some crying tantrums and frustrated children, but no method works smoothly for every child.
4. Make a list
Allow children to set up a schedule of their own. I saw in another program recently where an educator had a clipboard and a paper/pencil. When there was a particular thing many children wanted to use, they were responsible for putting their name (or their letter or their shape or however they could mark their spot) onto the list. The child playing would check the list when they were done and the next person took a turn. This turns control over to the children and allows everyone to be listened to and get a turn. It also has the added benefit of sneaking in some purposeful, meaningful writing.
Our post on the history of early childhood education explains the different early childhood education curricula and programming approaches that are available today.
The road to teaching a child to share is a marathon, not a sprint. It’ll take time, but through positive reinforcement, modeling, and patience, your child will be well on their way!