3 Steps to Teach Your Child to Share
“Sharing is caring”, so they say. It seems like a simple concept, right? Turns out it’s not simple.
For a child to understand and embrace the concept of sharing – rather than resent it – parents and caregivers must be diligent in setting the tone and establishing expectations upfront. After carefully planting the “sharing” seed, it must be nurtured and carefully guided in order to flourish into long-lasting habits, which ultimately shape a child’s character and moral compass.
Imagine you’re at a coffee shop and someone jealously eyes your java. They grab for it, yell and scream they want it, and it should be theirs. The manager rushes over and pries the warm cup from your fingers, hands it to the other person, looks you dead in the eyes and says, “you need to share!” What a horrible world that would be, right?
The same is true for our children. We must be careful not to send the wrong message.
If we simply intervene and demand sharing to happen as soon as there is toy drama, we are not teaching to share; instead, we’re teaching whoever throws the biggest tantrum will win the power struggle and get what they want. We’re also teaching how at any moment, someone can swoop in and steal your prized possessions, so you must hold them tight and never let anyone get close.
Not the message we want to send, right?
So, what can we do instead?
Step 1: Set Expectations
First and foremost, you must set expectations. However, this one starts with you as the parent or caregiver. Understand where your child is at developmentally, and adjust your expectations accordingly. Sharing is difficult for children until they are at least three years old, and even then it doesn’t just happen overnight. It takes practice, guidance, and positive reinforcement. Keep in mind, sharing can be a difficult concept for adults, too!
In order for kids to want to share, they need to be empathetic. Young children often show signs of empathy, but true empathy is not generally achievable until a child is about six years old, says Dr. Sears, professor of pediatrics at the University of Toronto. “Prior to that time, they share because you condition them to do so. Don’t expect a child less than two or 2½ to easily accept sharing. Children under two are into parallel play — playing alongside other children, but not with them. They care about themselves and their possessions and do not think about what the other child wants or feels. But, given guidance and generosity, the selfish two-year-old can become a generous three or four-year-old. As children begin to play with each other and cooperate in their play, they begin to see the value of sharing.”
Don’t be discouraged. This does not mean you shouldn’t try to teach sharing. It’s just a reminder to be patient and keep realistic expectations in mind. You’ve got this!
Step 2: Model Sharing and Ease Into It
Here at Kiddi Kollege in Kansas City, our teachers model and encourage sharing each and every day.
Our Chief Quality Officer, Tricia Kopek, explains it in the following way, “Our teachers show sharing by example, as well as through rewarding and praising children often who are showing good sharing skills during free play. When I was a pre-k teacher, I made sure my class knew it’s okay to not always WANT to share – it’s a normal feeling to have. However, it’s a part of life, and it’s so wonderful to share something with someone that brings you happiness. I also made sure to explain that sharing does not mean giving a toy away forever; you will have another time to play with that toy.”
Sharing vs. Trading
At home, you can ease your child into sharing by beginning with the concept of trading.
- Practice when your child is already in a good mood, not when they’re overly fussy, hungry, or tired.
- Look at what they’re playing with and find a similar toy. Suggest a trade by saying, “Can we trade? Let’s share!”
- Give your toy first, then slowly take theirs as they let go. If they are resistant, play next to them with your toy to spark some interest. Once they are interested in trading, switch toys for about five seconds, then give it back, and be sure to praise your child. Say something like, “good share! Thank you!” A hug and kiss go a long way here, too.
- If you have older children or other adults at home, get them on board with this exercise and have them practice it regularly, gradually increasing the trading time as your child gets more comfortable with it.
- Be sure to use the keywords “share” and “trade”, ensuring they learn these words, and don’t skimp on the positive reinforcement! Remember, sharing needs to be a positive experience for your child in order for them to eventually embrace it rather than resent it.
Most importantly, give your child grace. Remember, this is a brand-new concept for your kiddo, and it’s 100% developmentally appropriate for them to have a hard time letting go of whatever object they’re currently fixated on.
If your child does not seem to be in the mood to have their toy taken at the arbitrary moment you have chosen, don’t push it. Forcing this will only result in a negative connotation of sharing, which may be hard to shake.
Remember the coffee analogy from earlier? In your child’s mind, it’s exactly the same thing. They found the toy; they’re using it; you can get your own toy. Perfectly reasonable.
Trading vs. Taking Turns
When your child seems ready to level-up their sharing game, you can introduce the idea of taking turns, which is really what sharing is, at its core. There’s a big difference between sharing a blanket vs. sharing an ice cream cone. Blanket sharing is true sharing, whereas sharing an ice cream means you’re giving up half of it. But this example is a linguistic debate for another time. For the sake of simplicity, we’ll use the terms interchangeably.
How to Intervene
When your child wants to play with a toy someone else is already playing with, it’s important to mediate and give your child the language and tools they need in order to be successful having these conversations on their own later down the line.
If, or more likely when they start to cry, give them a hug, rub their back, assure them their feelings are valid – but do not give in. Say something like, “I know you want to play with the rocket ship, it’s a very cool toy. Jackson is playing with it right now. Let’s play with this instead! Ooh, look how fun this one is! Woooow!”
Remember, although it may seem extremely trivial and foolish to be so upset over a slimy dinosaur or red monkey, your child’s feelings are real, and they need to know you are there to support them through good times and bad. Today it’s a toy, but soon enough it’ll be their first heartbreak, first job loss, or another painful struggle; your child needs to know from the get-go how you have their back no matter what the issue is. Lay the groundwork today by showing them you care about their feelings and desires.
Of course, there are many factors to consider when choosing how to respond to any given situation. These are some suggestions for common scenarios where your child may want to play with a toy which isn’t available at the precise moment they want it.
Shared toy – within the family
If a toy belongs to the whole family, you can set up a turn-taking schedule using increments of time. Let each child know everyone will have a turn and they can play with other items in the meantime. Depending on what it is and the ages of your children, you have some options for accomplishing this:
- Use a timer to indicate the length of each child’s turn with the toy.
- A visual timer works well, since young children don’t quite understand the concept of time just yet. Use a sand hourglass or a phone timer with a visual, such as a pie chart countdown. Another bonus for the phone timer is the sound it makes – the alarm makes the transition very clear and delivers the bad news for you, without you having to say it.
- This will make the timer the bad guy, rather than you or the other child.
- Tell each child they can use the item up to X amount of time, and if they want to give it up earlier, they can do so. (Bonus: if they choose to end their turn early, they’ll experience the happiness associated with true sharing, as opposed to forced sharing, which will eventually lead to generosity and kindness – our ultimate goal, right?)
Remember, do NOT just go up to your kid and say, “time to share” and steal their toy away. Give them a heads-up. If they’re already playing with a shared family toy and their sibling is interested in it now, let the child with the toy know their sibling is also interested in playing with it. You can either set up a timer to indicate how long they have left or leave it up to the child to decide when they’re done with it. When the toy is done being played with by the first sibling, they can let the other kid know their turn may begin.
Again, there are many factors to consider, and what works today may not work tomorrow. Just remember – you can try out many strategies, tailoring each one based on the ages of your children, the type of toy, or any other factor which may come into play.
Overall, try to be consistent, and most importantly, model kindness and let your child know you care about them, and their feelings are valid. This crucial element often gets swept under the rug if we’re not careful.
Shared toy – in a public space
Let’s say you’re at the park and all the swings are occupied. You have no control over what the other kids are doing, and it’d be a bit awkward to approach their parents to suggest kicking their kids off. So, instead, explain to your child about community property and turn taking. Then shift their focus onto the other – available – equipment. More than likely, the kids and/or their parents will notice there are other interested parties, and they’ll finish their turn soon enough. There’s not much more you can do in this situation, but the good news is your child is learning how to be patient and they’re realizing not everything they see is “mine”!
Not their toy – belongs to sibling
When a child wants their sibling’s toy, you must advocate for the sibling. Is this toy a breakable porcelain doll which could easily be shattered by baby brother? Or is it an age-appropriate toy for both children, and would make sense to be shared? Is this a prized possession, one of their absolute favorites? Keep all this in mind when deciding how best to intervene.
If it makes sense for your child to share with their sibling, help encourage them to do so, but do not force it. If it’s truly their toy and theirs alone, they should get to decide what to do with it. However, if it’s something given as an item for both children, be sure to approach it as such. See the section below about how to sort items as “shareable” and “not shareable”.
Not their toy – belongs to a friend
Similar to the above scenario, you cannot control what another child is doing, nor would it be appropriate to demand a parent to force their child to share with your child. Simply remind your kiddo: it’s their friend’s toy, and they’ll share if they want to do so. Then remind them of the toys available to them.
Shared toy – at school or daycare
Here at Kiddi Kollege in Kansas City, we mitigate sharing obstacles in a variety of ways. “Children are so smart; it works very well when we incorporate “sharing activities” and class circle time discussions,” says Tricia Kopek. “We provide multiple “centers” during free play and explain to the class that everyone will get a turn with each toy or activity for the same amount of time. Classroom management is key, and our teachers are extremely skilled at this.”
Involvement in an early childhood education center is an excellent opportunity for your child to practice social skills, sharing being one of many skills they’ll pick up.
“There is not ONE right way to incorporate sharing into the classroom; it is a part of our daily life in our buildings,” says Tricia. “We also limit outside toys to just Show ‘n Share days, which helps us with any toys becoming a problem or sharing issue during the day.”
Step 3: Nurture and Facilitate Sharing Development for Long-Lasting Success
Prior to a playdate, help your child mentally prepare for sharing by asking them if there are any toys which they won’t feel comfortable sharing.
Perhaps they have three or four very special items which are priceless in their eyes, and they couldn’t bear to see them get scuffed up or drooled on by someone other than themselves. This is perfectly natural. Think of your own precious items. Would you let your friend take your brand-new car out for a spin? Possibly, but you’d be very hesitant, right? Or your favorite earrings, treasured heirlooms handed down from your great-grandmother – would you let your neighbor borrow them for a night out? Probably not. In your child’s mind, his or her special toys are just as valuable. Again, their feelings are valid, and as their loving parent, it’s critically important to honor their wishes.
If your child is too young to comprehend this conversation, make these executive decisions on your own. Put away any items you think may cause too much of an emotional response if/when sharing ensues.
Make sure your child realizes all other toys left out are for everyone to enjoy, i.e.: share. Give him or her one more chance to put back any item if needed. Likely, they won’t want to haul everything away. And even if they do, you can always have a dance competition, play hide-and-seek, or do other non-toy-based activities. If this is the case, more than likely your child will change their mind and decide they do want to share their toys after all. Hooray! Again, remember this is the ultimate goal: a child who chooses to be kind and generous.
Additionally, it’s important to discuss other items and categorize them as either shareable or non-shareable. For example, medication is not shareable. Their toothbrush is not shareable. Mommy’s adult beverage is not shareable.
Read Books About Sharing
Reading with your child supports cognitive development, improves language skills, sparks creativity, prepares them for academic success, helps strengthen your parent-child bond, and the list goes on.
Additionally, reading helps you instill critical life lessons, allowing your child to visualize themselves in varying situations, while watching another person play out the scenario their own way. It also gives you stories you can refer back to later during teachable moments. Ask your local library for recommendations on the best books for sharing; perhaps order a few to have at home, too. Some options include: Llama Llama Time to Share, It’s Mine!, and The Big Umbrella.
Continue Guiding and Encouraging Your Child
After laying the groundwork for future sharing success, the next part is maintenance. Acknowledge when your child is generous – give them praise and thank them for their kindness. Children crave attention, and if they only receive it for negative behavior, this will be the behavior you’ll continue to see.
Also, be sure to encourage yourself, too! Sharing is a difficult concept for children to master. If you’ve read this far, you clearly care about your child and are trying to be a good parent, which means you already are one! Give yourself a pat on the back. You’ve got this!
More Sharing Opportunities Await!
If you’re in the Kansas City area and are looking for more ways for your child to connect with other kids, practice sharing, learn all kinds of new skills, and have fun, look no further than Kiddi Kollege!