I watch as a little girl grabs a shovel, which lays near a little boy playing contentedly in the sand. Both children look around the age of two or three, struggling still to navigate their bodies or express themselves in words. The little boy looks up at her with big eyes and bursts into loud tears, reaching out to grab for it. She clutches it defiantly to her chest. Two mothers scramble for how to respond.
“You have to share,” they say in unison to their respective children. They both know there are plenty of sand toys to go around.
The tears are not assuaged. The little girl is not convinced and the little boy has no intention of being persuaded that this is not a catastrophe. The girl bursts into tears now, threatened by the idea that she might lose the precious shovel. Two children are crying loudly.
The mother of the boy tries to give another shovel to her son while the girl’s mother tries to convince her to give the shovel in question in exchange for something else. The wailing continues. The mothers squirm with discomfort, frustration written on their faces. There’s embarrassment there, and worry, too. “We need to share,” they both repeat, in desperation. But written on their faces, the struggle is real: what do we do??
If they both grabbed up their phones and started voraciously googling “get your kid to share,” they would come across hundreds of websites all suggesting different things. Some discuss rewards, others discuss consequences, and still others will talk about how to avoid the situation in the first place. And yes, there are many ways to handle this situation. But first, it helps to really understand what sharing is all about.
Sharing is a prosocial behavior, meaning that it is an action intended to help another person. It requires empathy, altruism, and most importantly, must be volunteered (in order to genuinely be considered as “sharing”). If these sound like complicated terms for a toddler, you’re right. Sharing takes a level of cognitive ability and understanding of the concept of fairness, which most young children are still in the process of developing. This means that sharing is a developmental process, and it takes time.
It’s not that you won’t see toddlers share; these prosocial behaviors begin to emerge as empathy begins to develop. Your child may offer you a bite of their food or a hug when you are sad. They might offer a toy to a friend. These offers may not be consistent or timely, but as they grow, you will notice them more and more. Between the ages of six and twelve, empathy will grow dramatically and these prosocial behaviors will become a part of your child’s skill set as they begin to value fairness. Children grow to be more likely to not only voluntarily share, but even go out of their way to make sure others have a fair amount.
Given that sharing behavior is predictive of success, it’s easy to understand why parents might feel compelled to make their children share. The problem is that “making” children share does not actually reflect the natural development of the skill, nor does it make them more likely to share in the future. If making children share becomes associated with you taking away their toy and giving it to someone else, you may find that forced sharing actually leads to defensive and angry feelings about sharing, causing children to focus more on possessiveness.
So, if sharing is so important, how can we encourage it?
First and foremost, you have to be a model of sharing
Prosocial behaviors are best learned from the environment; meaning, if you want children to share then they need to see you sharing. Sharing your meal, your ice cream cone, your blanket, your seat…these are all ways for children to see you demonstrate this behavior. Sharing with people other than your child holds importance as well. You can share household items with your neighbor or share your snacks with other families at the playground. The more your child witnesses sharing, the more likely they will share.
Use the language of “share” while you are sharing
When you demonstrate sharing behaviors, explain to your child that you are “sharing.” If they ask for something of yours, respond “I would love to share with you.” If you are sharing with others, express to your child that you are sharing and discuss why you have made that choice (“I’m going to share my recipe with Grandma because I know that will make her happy”). The more often that you use this language, the more children will categorize these behaviors as sharing and understand what you mean when you talk about it.
Give children a choice
Research demonstrates that children are more likely to share when they are given a choice about sharing. In other words, instead of making children share, we can let them decide if they would like to share. While this may not yield the response we’d like in every situation, it goes a long way in encouraging kids to share.
Let’s take the above scenario. The mother of the little girl might have pointed out the little boy’s emotions: “oh, no, that little boy is so sad, I bet that he was really hoping to play with that; would you like to share that shovel with him and I’ll help you find another one?” Giving your child a choice to make this difficult decision will become an exercise in sharing, and the more often they choose to share, the more likely they will choose to share again.
Catch them sharing
If you see your child sharing, acknowledge that they have shared (“oh, look, how wonderful of you to share with your friend”). Express to your child how their action had a positive impact on another person (“I can see your friend is so happy that you shared with him…look how happy you have made him”). Let your child see how sharing has made you feel as well (“it makes my heart so happy when I see you share”). This encouragement will help your child view sharing as a positive act to be repeated.
Relax, and remember that the skills for sharing take time
Your children may share, and sometimes they may not. And that’s okay. If your children are not ready to share their toys, it’s okay to give them the language to say “no, thank you, I don’t want to share right now.” Sometimes children have strong reasons for not wanting to share in a given moment (like that little girl and boy above), and those feelings are legitimate, just as adults don’t always choose to share either. Give them the space to make those decisions and grow.
Children learn what they live…if you are a caring and sharing person, they will learn all they need from your example.