We’ve all seen the exchanges between toddlers and their caregivers:
“It’s time to give your truck to Charlie now.”
“No, you have to share.”
As a mother, I’m very familiar with the feeling of dread that comes over me when my son refuses to share or snatches a toy from another child’s hands. There’s an immediate urge to apologize for his behavior or point out how he’s such a good sharer normally. Often I have to resist the urge to jump in and play referee.
It seems like a collective parental mission to perfect our children’s ability to share from a very young age, as though their future as a conscientious, functioning member of society depends on it. It’s a noble goal — but I also think it’s worth examining if we’re going about it in the most suitable way.
First, we should probably take a step back and acknowledge that sharing in itself is kind of a weird thing. I mean, if I was in a park playing with my ball and someone walked over and took it away from me, I’d think that was odd. And to then be told by someone else that I had to give it up because it’s “time to share” probably wouldn’t improve the situation.
And yet this is often exactly the kind of “sharing” that our children experience. It’s no wonder they sometimes push back against the idea!
Second, it’s really important to keep in mind the developmental state of the people we’re talking to. These little beings are exploring their newfound realization of individuality, with the possibility of possession that comes with it. And their underdeveloped sense of time outside the present moment means that they want what they want Right. Now.
On top of all of this, they’re still in the early stages of learning impulse control (something that many of us still struggle with as adults).
Finally, consider that the idea of sharing is very conceptual. It doesn’t mean much to a toddler outside of the meaning he derives from you when he does, or doesn’t, execute it well. In other words: praise him for sharing, and your child will share for the sake of your praise. Scold her for not sharing and she’ll share simply to avoid your disapproval.
Sharing for the sake of sharing is lost in those scenarios. It’s a shame, because sharing provides a perfect opportunity to expose our children to ideals of empathy and altruism. And isn’t that what we’re really after with the extreme focus on sharing in the first place?
So, the question remains, given all of this, how do we as parents approach sharing in a more suitable way? Here are three little tricks I’ve learned that have done wonders for my son’s willingness to share:
1. Don’t deny ownership — reinforce it.
When my son grabs a toy and proclaims “MINE,” I don’t shush him. If the toy is actually his, I affirm his statement (“yes, sweetheart, that is your truck”).
If the ownership claim was made because someone else was encroaching on the toy, I’ll add, “Do you think your friend would like to play with it, too?” This provides security so he knows that giving a turn doesn’t mean giving up the toy for good.
If the toy in question doesn’t belong to him, I gently correct him: “No, my love. That truck belongs to your friend. Isn’t it nice that he’s letting you play with it?” This reminds him to actually experience how good it feels to be on the receiving end and also prepares him for leaving the toy behind.
2. Drop the word “share,” and don’t play referee.
When a dispute over a toy breaks out, instead of imploring kids to share, I suggest taking turns. Since this can be a little conceptual too, I remind them what that means in simple turns. “First, [child with current possession] will have a turn. After she’s done, it will be [other child’s] turn.”
I’ve found timing the turns to be counterproductive, causing kids to hold on to something in anticipation, or meltdown at the arbitrary “end of the turn” moment. Kids will usually pass the toy on in their own time, or lose interest and walk away.
It rarely comes to this, but if a toy is causing strife and turn-taking isn’t resolving it, I’m not beyond suggesting that we put it away for a rest. Taking turns usually looks like a happy alternative immediately.
3. Approach breakdowns as learning opportunities.
No matter how intentional you are about giving your child tools to weather sharing, there will be meltdown moments. Instead of feeling frustrated or embarrassed when they do occur, try to create a safe space for your child to express and process what they’re feeling.
Some questions I frequently ask in these moments are:
- What’s happening right now, my love?
- What are you feeling?
- How do you think your friend might be feeling right now?
- What do you think it was like for our friend when you grabbed that away from her?
- Can you think of any solution that would make everyone happy?
These questions help kids have a sense of being heard and teach them to watch and regulate their emotions. It also helps them experience empathy by imagining how someone else is feeling. Plus, it helps you to get on their page and establish yourself as a trusted ally. And by inviting their ideas about solutions, you’re showing them that you value their opinions.
As with most things in parenting, I’ve found that how all of this goes depends less on my son’s willingness to do what I’m asking of him and more on my own attachment to my expectations of exactly how he should be behaving in any given moment. Softening those attachments has consistently produced a more enjoyable parenting experience.