Learning to share is the foundational skill enabling children to play well together, make friends, cooperate, communicate, negotiate, take turns, and cope with waiting and disappointments. Sharing teaches children about fairness, compromise, and ultimately how the world works. They find out that giving to others means we sometimes get what we want, too, while maintaining our relationships and being altruistic in both our friendship groups and our communities.
Sharing comes in different forms as children grow and their interpersonal skills become more sophisticated, and it’s a skill learned most effectively when it comes about organically—not by directly telling your child to share. It’s far more important to instil in your little one a feeling that sharing is the right thing to do. So how can you go about fostering that kind of emotional intelligence in your child without simply barking “Share nicely!” every time they snatch the big red fire engine from an unsuspecting toddler’s hands?
How can I show my child the value of sharing?
Your child learns more about you just by watching your actions than you could ever imagine. So when you model good sharing and turn taking, you are their exemplar. Of course, you can also think of everyday situations in which they can practise, observe, and understand sharing:
- Have conversations about why letting others have a turn or a fair amount is the right thing to do: “When you share your toys, everyone gets to have fun. You’d like Megan to share her toys with you, wouldn’t you?”
- Praise your child when you see them share or let someone else have a go—even if the attempt didn’t quite pan out! “That was kind how you let Thomas have a turn on the slide. He had a lot of fun because you let him have a go, didn’t he?”
- Point out sharing when you see it: “Wasn’t Sophia kind at nursery today when she let the new boy have a turn on the go-kart?”
- Play games that involve turn taking: “Now it’s my turn to add a block to the tower, then it’s yours. You share the blue blocks with me, and I’ll share the red blocks with you.”
- Remind your child ahead of school or a playdate that they’ll need to share: “When Joe comes over this afternoon, you can play with your toys together, can’t you? Why don’t we ask him what he’d like to play with when he arrives?”
Of course, it’s perfectly reasonable, even important, for your child to have some extra special toys they don’t need to share (unless they want to). Clarifying this shows your child that sharing is not a universal rule, and that you respect that some of their possessions are especially precious to them. To avoid conflict, it may be worth storing these somewhere during playdates.
What should I do if my child constantly refuses to share?
If your little one finds sharing challenging, it’s a good idea to stay close by until they grow accustomed to the concept. As mentioned earlier, I recommend not directly telling your child to share, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t subtly intervene if a tantrum’s about to ensue, or express praise when they share well. There’s certainly no reason to avoid playdates if your child hasn’t learned to share yet, and it can be a source of humour between you and the visiting parent as together you gently encourage fair playing.
What does sharing look like at different ages?
The first few years of your child’s life are marked by dramatic brain development, and it’s during this critical period you can instil good behaviours which will serve them well in the future. Of course, this also means you need to temper your expectations of their sharing ability depending on how old they are, and adjust your response to poor sharing accordingly.
It’s highly unlikely your 2-year-old understands sharing! They see that bright cheeky orangutan toy and get tunnel vision—regardless of whether another toddler’s hanging onto it at the time! They don’t comprehend turn taking—nor do they have the faculties yet to manage their emotions. If they can’t have what they want or have a tantrum when they’re told off for snatching, don’t take it personally, and don’t enforce consequences for their behaviour. Instead, guide your toddler: let them observe good sharing by you, and give them opportunities to practise sharing at home without the pressure of their clamouring friends at nursery or in the park.
By the time they’re 3, children begin to grasp the concepts of sharing and turn taking. Your preschooler likely has a rudimentary understanding that sharing is the right thing to do, although they may still struggle with turn taking when they actually have to put it into practice! You can build their skills up by keenly observing their sharing and praising them when they do well. Introduce more complex activities that entail turn taking, such as having them play dress-up when their friend comes over, or drawing a picture together using the same packet of crayons. Ask how they feel if another child snatched a toy they were playing with—and if your preschooler then snatches a few days later, remind them of how they felt when they were on the receiving end. This encourages empathy, and opens them up to a world in which people around them may have different points of view, even when they’re experiencing the same situation.
You can put some consequences in place when your preschooler doesn’t share well and throws a tantrum—but make sure whatever punitive measure you implement actually relates to sharing. If they snatched a toy train during a playdate and made their friend cry, take the train away for a brief time so they can’t play with it. Of course, this does also impact your child’s friend, but chances are they’ll also benefit from a short but powerful example of the importance of turn taking and fairness. When things have calmed down, make a show of returning the toy to your child or to the pair of them. This demonstrates magnanimity because you believe your child deserves another chance and can now be trusted to share well.
By the time your child starts school, they’ll have some understanding that everyone has their own unique thoughts and feelings. That means they’re more likely to happily take turns, and they may well come home from school and tell you about a classmate who didn’t share well today. Your school-age child may avoid playing a game altogether if they sense there won’t be fair turn taking. This would demonstrate a great level of empathy and maturity—so you should be proud!
Children become far more patient and tolerant as they get older, but be under no illusion—you’re in for some tantrums along the way! Just remember that every little incident over a fire engine, a go-kart, an orangutan, is formative in your child’s development. Every instance of sharing, positive or negative in outcome, shapes their values, so intervene only when things are getting out of hand—and observe with pride and wonder as your little one grows to comprehend the big wide world around them.