Teach Your Child to Share: Simple Steps From Dr. Bill
Children have difficulty sharing, especially young children. This is a normal part of the development process. Knowing and accepting this is the first step in teaching your child to share. Here’s an overview of what’s going on inside that possessive little mind.
1. Selfishness comes before sharing
The power to possess is a natural part of the child’s growing awareness. During the second and third years, as the child goes from oneness to separateness, this little person works to establish an identity separate from mother. “I do it myself!” and “mine!” scream the headlines in the toddler’s tabloid. In fact, “mine” is one of the earliest words to come out of a toddler’s mouth.
The growing child develops attachments to things as well as persons. This ability to form strong attachments is important to being an emotionally healthy person. The one-year-old has difficulty sharing her mommy; the two-year-old has difficulty sharing her teddy bear. Some children get so attached to a toy that the raggedy old doll becomes part of the child’s self. When asked to draw a picture of herself, four-year-old Hayden would always include her doll — as if it were part of her body. Can you imagine convincing her to share this doll with a playmate? It was too important. She could not feel safe and secure if that doll was being handled by another child.
2. When to expect a child to share
True sharing implies empathy, the ability to get into another’s mind and see things from their viewpoint. Children are seldom capable of true empathy under the age of six. 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.
Attachment-parented kids may be more sensitive to others’ needs and thus more willing to share, or they may be more aware of their own need to preserve their sense of self by not sharing. It’s easier to share with someone less powerful than you or less threatening, (i.e., someone younger,)—a visitor rather than a sibling, a quiet child rather than a demanding one. Much depends on your child’s temperament. Follow your child’s cues in judging when he is ready to share.
Even at four or five years of age, expect selective sharing. A child may reserve a few precious possessions just for himself. The child is no more likely to share her treasured teddy or tattered blanket than you would share your wedding ring or the heirloom shawl your mother gave you. Respect and protect your child’s right to his own possessions. Kids know kids. At four, Matthew sized up his friend Johnny, an impulsive, curious child who would have been a natural durability tester for a toy manufacturer. Johnny explored every moving part, pulled and twisted them; only the strongest toy could survive this child. Matthew recognized his friend’s destructive nature and hid his more valuable and breakable toys when he saw Johnny coming. We supported Matthew’s wisdom.
3. Don’t force a child to share
Instead, create attitudes and an environment that encourages your child to want to share. There is power in possession. To you, they’re only toys. To a child, they’re a valuable, prized collection that has taken years to assemble. Respect the normal possessiveness of children while you encourage and model sharing. Then watch how your child operates in a group play setting — you’ll learn a lot about your child and about what kind of guidance he’ll need.
If your child is always the grabber, he’ll learn that other kids won’t want to play with him. If he’s always the victim, he needs to learn the power of saying “no.” In the preschool years, your child naturally goes through a “what’s in it for me” stage, which will progress into a more socially aware “what’s in it for us” stage. Gradually — with a little help from parents — children learn that life runs more smoothly if they share.
4. Get connected
A child gives as he is given to. We have observed that children who received attachment parenting during the first two years are more likely to become sharing children in the years to come, for two reasons. Children who have been on the receiving end of generosity follow the model they’ve been given and become generous persons themselves. Also, a child who feels right is more likely to share. An attachment-parented child is more likely to have a secure self-image. He needs fewer things to validate his self-worth. In taking a poll of attachment- parented children in our practice, we found they needed fewer attachment objects. They are more likely to reach for mother’s hand than cling to a blanket.
5. Model generosity when you teach your child to share
Monkey see, monkey do. If big monkey shares, so will little monkey. When someone asks to borrow one of your “toys,” make this a teachable moment: “Mommy is sharing her cookbook with her friend.” Let your sharing shine. Share with your children: “Want some of my popcorn?” “Come sit with us — we’ll make room for you.” If you have several children, especially if they are close in age, there will be times when there isn’t enough of you to go around. Two children can’t have one hundred percent of one mommy or daddy. Do the best you can to divide your time fairly. “No fair” may be the single most frequently repeated complaint of childhood. Try to be an equal opportunity parent as much as possible, while teaching your children that other factors come into play in day-to-day life.
6. Play games
Play “Share Daddy.” Placing the two-year-old on one knee and the four-year-old on the other teaches both children to share their special person. Even a two-year-old can play “Share Your Wealth.” Give your two-year-old some flowers, crackers, blocks, or toys, and ask her to share them with everyone in the room: “Give one to big brother. Give one to Daddy.” You want to convey the message that sharing is a normal way of life and sharing spreads joy.
Lauren found a piece of chocolate in my (Martha’s) purse the other day. She happily ate it and then showed me a second piece she’d found. I told her that piece was for Stephen and Matthew to share and asked her to go give it to them, thinking to myself she’d just eat it on her way. I didn’t bother to go with her to see the “inevitable.” Bill later told me how cute it was when she walked up and doled out the halves, one to Stephen and one to Matthew.”
TEACHING LIFE PRINCIPLES THROUGH PLAY
7. When to step in
While we don’t expect toddlers to be able to share, we use every opportunity we can to encourage taking turns. Teach your child how to communicate her needs to her friends. Say something like, “When Catherine is all done with the car, then you can ride it. Ask her when she will be done” or “Hold out your hand and wait; she’ll give you the doll when she’s ready.” When a toy squabble begins, sometimes it’s wise not to rush in and interfere. Give children time and space to work it out among themselves. Stay on the sidelines and observe the struggle. If the group dynamics are going in the right direction and the children seem to be working the problem out among themselves, stay a bystander. If the situation is deteriorating, intervene. Self-directed learning — with or without a little help from caregivers — has the most lasting value.
Using a timer can help you referee toy squabbles. Johnny and Jimmy are having trouble sharing the toy. You intervene by asking each one to choose a number and the one who chooses the closest number to the one you thought of gets the toy first. You then set the timer. Two minutes is about right for younger children. You can ask older ones to wait longer. When the timer goes off, the toy goes to the second child for the same amount of time (though he has probably forgotten that he wanted it). You may have to sell children on the plan with an animated, simple explanation. Walk them through a cycle, starting with the older one or the one more likely to cooperate. For example, Stephen has the toy for two minutes. The buzzer goes off. Extract the toy from Stephen with talking and encouragement and hand it to Lauren, reassuring Stephen it will be his turn again when the buzzer goes off.
It may take several cycles before a child can hand over the toy on her own, smiling because she knows she will get it back. A family in our practice who uses the timer method told us that it worked so well that the older sibling runs to her mother saying, “Mom, set the timer. Suzy won’t share.” External and internal timers help children learn valuable lessons for later life – how to take turns and how to delay gratification.
If the time method doesn’t work, time-out the toy. Put it on the shelf and explain that the toy stays there until they learn to share it. Children may sulk for a while as the toy sits unused, but sooner or later the realization hits that it’s better to share than to forfeit the toy completely. They will learn to compromise and cooperate so that everyone winds up winning.
9. Plan ahead
If your child has trouble sharing his toys and a playmate is coming over, ask the playmate’s parent to send toys along. Kids can’t resist toys that are new to them. Soon your child will realize that he must share his own toys in order to get his hands on his playmate’s. Or, if you are bringing your sharing child to the home of a non-sharing child, bring toys along. Some children develop a sense of justice and fairness at a very young age. One of our children didn’t want to return to a friend’s house because “he didn’t share.” We made this a teachable moment by praising him: “Aren’t you glad you like to share? I bet kids like to come to your house.”
10. Protect your child’s interests as you teach your child to share
If your child clings to his precious possessions, respect this attachment, while still teaching him to share and be generous. It’s normal for a child to be selfish with some toys and generous with others. Guard the prized toy. Pick it up if the other child tries to snatch it. You be the scapegoat. Ease your child into sharing. Before play begins, help your child choose which toys he will share with playmates and which ones he wants to put away or reserve for himself. You may have to play referee: “This is Susie’s special birthday toy. You may play with these other ones until she’s ready to share.” Respect ownership.
The larger the family, the more necessary it is to arrive at a balance between respecting ownership and teaching sharing. Point out, “That’s Collin’s toy… but this one belongs to the whole family.” And, of course, encourage trading. Children easily learn the concept of family toys, such as television, which everyone shares. The mother of one large family with four close-in-age boys had a policy of the family toy pool — gifts were enjoyed by the new owner for one hour, then they joined the pool of toys. Special toys that needed individual care were set apart in the owner’s room.
11. Give your child opportunities to share
To encourage sharing, Janet gave four-year-old Benjamin a whole cookie with the request, “Please give some of the cookie to Robin.” He broke off a piece and gave it to her. It was good practice for Benjamin and, from his modeling, two-year-old Robin learned about sharing. Oftentimes, you can teach values to your younger children by using older children as models. In this case, both the teacher and the student got a lesson in values, and Janet breathed a sigh of relief that Benjamin came through with the desired behavior.
For more information, read this related article on how to teach your child to share.
Dr. Sears, or Dr. Bill as his “little patients” call him, has been advising busy parents on how to raise healthier families for over 40 years. He received his medical training at Harvard Medical School’s Children’s Hospital in Boston and The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, the world’s largest children’s hospital, where he was associate ward chief of the newborn intensive care unit before serving as the chief of pediatrics at Toronto Western Hospital, a teaching hospital of the University of Toronto. He has served as a professor of pediatrics at the University of Toronto, University of South Carolina, University of Southern California School of Medicine, and University of California: Irvine. As a father of 8 children, he coached Little League sports for 20 years, and together with his wife Martha has written more than 40 best-selling books and countless articles on nutrition, parenting, and healthy aging. He serves as a health consultant for magazines, TV, radio and other media, and his AskDrSears.com website is one of the most popular health and parenting sites. Dr. Sears has appeared on over 100 television programs, including 20/20, Good Morning America, Oprah, Today, The View, and Dr. Phil, and was featured on the cover of TIME Magazine in May 2012. He is noted for his science-made-simple-and-fun approach to family health.