“Sharing is caring!”—this familiar phrase echoes through the school halls and is championed by beloved TV personalities adored by your children. However, it’s important to understand the reasons why your toddler doesn’t always have to share, empowering their autonomy and fostering healthy social development.
But right now, your child is yelling, “Mine!” and you’re about to say, “No, no, please share.” Not so quickly! We’re interfering to say, “No, no, stop!” Why? Because toddlers don’t know what it means to share yet. They can’t get good at something they don’t know how to do. So, if we care about our children, we shouldn’t ask them to share. Certainly not yet.
Sharing and Little Kids
Shouldn’t we encourage people to share? Sure… And that’s exactly what you’re doing by waiting until your child is mentally and emotionally ready to see sharing as a kind act, not as “Aaah!! How could you do that?!”
We don’t expect a 6-month-old to walk like a 12-month-old or a 1-year-old to “use your words” like a 2-year-old, but we start telling them to share as soon as they grab another toddler’s board book. We think that children are more aware of themselves and their place in the world than they really are because of how they talk, walk, and have strong opinions. And at this stage, they have no idea what it means to share.
Why Toddlers Can’t Share Yet
Toddlers don’t know for sure that they are each their own person yet. They are trying this idea: you can build a sense of self by feeling like you own something: “I own, therefore I am.” They are not being selfish when they grab and hold on for dear life and want everything for themselves. Instead, they are scientists trying the idea that they are unique. “All Mine!” is one of the trials they are doing in their “laboratory,” which is the whole world.
To make matters worse, they don’t yet understand that things can belong to more than one person.
Then there’s the idea of time, which a baby doesn’t have yet. So, when they give up something, they give it up for good. Even taking turns in an organized way (“one more minute, and then it’s your turn”) can be very hard for someone who has no idea of time. Sharing is already hard to describe and is almost impossible in time.
Then we get to… controlling your urges. For example, the popular Toddler’s Creed says, “If I want it, it’s mine!” I would own it if I used it yesterday. “It’s mine if I can take it from you!” They demand instant gratification for all their wants. If you add another child, some toys, and an adult who talks about “sharing,” you have a situation that could explode in your toddler’s lab.
But, you might say, my child gives me Cheerios and toys when we play together, so isn’t that sharing? Well, it’s part of that science project on selfhood we talked about above. When this happens, you can acknowledge the gesture and maybe show your appreciation by sharing it back if your toddler hasn’t already taken it back. Toddler scientists will work hard on this social and emotional skill over the next year or so until brain development, socialization, and the desire to make friends make it possible for toddlers to share genuinely.
But until they are ready, which is usually around age three, trying to get them to share can fail. No one likes it when things are taken away from them, especially when they don’t know why. “Share” will become a bad word, and “sharing” will become something to avoid. This will make “selfishness” last longer, say experts in child development.
How to Help Toddlers Learn to Share
What should you do before a child can share? There are two:
- Label and accept the feeling you’re having at the time. Say, “You didn’t like it when JoJo took your toy away,” because feeling understood is calming. Then tell them, “Next time, hold on tight,” because they have the right to keep what they need. Tell the person who grabbed it, “Next time, ask, ‘Can I use it?'” You might use these words a lot as time goes on… Good! These easy lessons about getting along with others take time to sink in.
- Model sharing for your child. Toddlers want us to tell them about the world. People will want to “get there” with you if you like sharing.
Don’t worry; just be patient. It won’t be long before your child gets that “sharing is caring.” Think “selfhood” instead of “selfish,” show them how to be kind, and for now, let them hold on tight. If you give them time, they’ll be more likely to let go and share when they’re ready.