elevating child care

The S Word – Toddlers Learning To Share

It’s chanted on every playground and enforced at the park, parties and play dates. It’s a word that has become the social mantra for parents of toddlers everywhere: Share!
We are all desperate for our children to share. Sharing is vital. The future of the world depends upon our children’s spirit of generosity. We fear that if we don’t remind our children to share, they might become selfish, stingy outcasts. Or, we worry that we will be judged an indulgent, inconsiderate and ill-mannered parent.

The truth is that toddlers don’t yet understand the concept of sharing, and our parental concerns make ‘share’ a loaded word. We tend to misuse it. We say “share”, but what we really mean is, “Give what you have to another child.”

Why would a child want to ‘share’ his red truck when it means giving up the truck to someone else?

Toddlers want what they see, and that object becomes ‘theirs.’ ‘Mine’ can mean either: I see it, I want it, or I’m using it. The idea of ownership — the concept that dad or mom bought an item at the store so now it belongs to them — is not understood by a toddler.

It’s common in RIE Parent/Infant Classes for children to want the same toy. The giving and taking of toys often begins as a social gesture, an infant’s early attempt to make contact with another infant. The children may appear to be struggling with a toy, but with a bit of patience and objective observation, we usually see that there is little stress and lots of curiosity. If a child reacts to the exchange with surprise or disappointment, infant expert Magda Gerber advises caregivers to ‘sportscast,’ rather than interfere. ‘Sportscast’ means to acknowledge the interactions of the children in a matter-of-fact way, never implying blame. Children often calm down when they feel that an adult understands. We might say, for example: “Rex, you were holding the car, and now Sophie has it.” Or, “You and Sophie both want that toy.”

There are no villains or victims in Toddlerland, just children learning by experimenting with social behaviors.

When infants and toddlers have opportunities for uninterrupted socialization, they will try out different options. Should they let go and allow the other child to take the ball away? What happens if they hold on tightly? If they do ‘share’ or offer something to another child, how does that child react? As infant expert Magda Gerber reminded us in her book Your Self-Confident Baby, “Self-learned lessons, whether sharing or the will to hold on, stick with us longer.”

Children will often demonstrate that the interaction with another child is what interests them, not the toy itself. This is evident when there are multiples of a certain object available, yet the children are only interested in the one that has ‘heat.’ Soon after the struggle is over, the toy is usually dropped, becomes ‘cold,’ and no one wants it anymore. Children are best left to work these situations out by themselves while the adults insure that there is no hitting or hurting.

Several years ago I experienced the futility of adult interference in a toddler power struggle when I brought my daughter to her friend’s house to play. The girls both wanted a particular doll. The girl’s kind-hearted mother couldn’t bear to see them fight, so she offered my daughter a replacement toy, a stuffed turtle. Then both girls wanted the turtle, so she brought something else. She brought toy after toy to the girls, and they continued to fight over each new toy. Finally, after tears and yelling, the girls finished their rivalry, abandoned all the toys and went out in the yard to play, friends again.

So, how do we teach children to share with others?

First, by modeling generosity. For example, saying to a child, “You’re reaching for my crackers. Here, I’ll share some with you.” Or, “Let’s share this umbrella.”

Second, when our child demonstrates generosity we acknowledge it. “It was kind of you to share those blocks with Robert.”

Most importantly, we must be patient and trust that our child will learn to share in time.

No parent feels comfortable when their child takes from another, holds on to toys that another wants to use, or seems upset because another child will not share with him. But these situations usually look far worse from our point-of-view than they do from our child’s. When we unnecessarily intervene in a struggle by insisting that a child shares, we rob him of a social learning experience. And when we insist that our child shares before he can truly understand what it means, we risk making ‘share’ a bad word. A child shares when he begins to feel empathy for others, empathy modeled through a parent’s patience and trust in him.

***

I share more about toddler behavior and learning in

Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting

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47 Responses to “The S Word – Toddlers Learning To Share”

  1. avatar Patricia Arnold says:

    Great post! From now on, I will never be able use the word share around my kids without considering my motives.

    Thanks!
    -PA

    • avatar deborah greenwald says:

      excellent topic
      can I use this for a reading in an online course?
      Sometimes I use this analogy for adults- you are in your office, on the computer, a coworker comes in and squeezes in next to you on your chair and begins typing on the keyboard with you. When you protest, your boss leans in the door and says, “Share”
      What would you do?

      • avatar Andrea Bogle says:

        LOL! Great analogy Deborah! Thank you for the laugh and putting this in adult perspective. Yes, this is a great post. I like the idea for modeling sharing. As Amy says, sharing is hard for even adults. We often forget that our toddlers are not adults and are truely learning the sharing concept. How can they learn if we “steal” the learning experience from them? “Your Self-Confident Baby” is on my reading list!

  2. avatar Amy says:

    Such wise words! Sharing is hard. Even for adults sometimes. I often forget how difficult it is for my little guys and that they’re learning – through self discovery. Very nicely written, thanks!

  3. avatar Sandra McQueen says:

    I really appreciate this post. Intuitively, this is what I’ve always believed, but there is so much peer pressure from other adults to tow the “share” line! thx.

  4. avatar Merritt says:

    I understand that my two year old and his peers don’t comprehend sharing. I frequently find myself in an exchange with another child’s parent saying it’s ok your child doesn’t need to give up his toy there are lots of other things my son can play with while your child is involved with that one and I can easily get him involved in something else. The other adult usually doesn’t “hear” this and insists on their child surrendering the toy —much to the dismay of their child! Any suggestions on mitigating this situation differently -do you think redirecting my child’s attention in this way is a good strategy?

    • avatar janet says:

      Thank you, Merritt and Sandra, for mentioning the difficulty of dealing with parents who have different beliefs regarding toddlers and sharing. When you are in a park or public place, you obviously have no control over the behavior of other parents. It’s okay for your child to learn that others have different rules than you do; ‘sportscasting’ and acknowledging will help him to understand what’s happening. You might say,”The boy has been asked to give the toy to you and he’s upset about that,” or, “This family needs us to bring the toy back to the little girl. Can you do it, or should I?”

      Modeling the respectful way you treat your child can have a positive effect on those around you.

      When you are with adults that you are comfortable with, you can set the tone in a non-threatening way by asking them to join in your parenting experiment. At the beginning of a play date with a friend, or group of friends, you might say something like, “I’m reading about the benefits of allowing children to work out their social conflicts. Can we try that today?”

      Thank you all for your comments!

  5. avatar AmyJ says:

    Great topic ~ As a mom and an early childhood educator, I am faced with the complaint that “Johnny’s not sharing!” every day. When that happens, I give the children a time frame. I tell them Johnny may play for 2 or 3 or 5 more minutes (depending on the level of involvement or situation) and then it will be Jane’s turn. This allows Johnny time to mentally prepare to be done, and gives Jane the opportunity to learn patience!!! We all have time limits to get our work/play done and giving a time frame/heads up makes transitions for children easier. They shouldn’t have to surrender something on the spot just because someone else decided they want it right now.

    • avatar Megan says:

      If a child has to give up what they’re working with, even after a few more minutes, he hasn’t learned what he needs to learn from it. If we make children stop what they’re doing unnecessarily, they can learn not to get too deeply involved in what they’re doing because someone will just come along and make them stop.
      “Sharing” doesn’t have to involve conflict, though I never make a child “share” anything, ever. I teach the children in my class to ask if they may join someone’s work and then the other child has the option to say yes or no. If they say yes, they stick by it. If they say no, the other child has to choose another work. We also have “one person works” that aren’t able to be shared. The key is in the child having a measure of control over the situation. I’ve seen children tense up when another child gets close to them, all ready to fight it out, and then the other child asks and the first child relaxes, says yes, and they work/play together. I think they do need adults to model it, and to give them appropriate ways of handling the situation by around 2.5-3.

      • avatar janet says:

        Megan, thanks for sharing the methods you use for handling conflicts with older toddlers. They sound perfect! In the RIE classes we intercede similarly when a toddler is obviously involved with a toy or object, or has a project, etc. I agree that children often need our modeling and help with language, i.e, “Please ask John first if you want to use that toy.” Or a reminder that a child can say, “No, I’m using that.”

  6. avatar Khadija Anderson says:

    I never use the word “share” in my daycare/preschool simply because, as the author says, toddlers (and preschoolers) don’t understand the concept. We use “taking turns” and my mantra is “when Sally is done you can have a turn”. This works really well and many times the child having use of the wanted object will give it to the child who is waiting for it.

    • avatar Andrea Bogle says:

      When my daughter and a friend want the same toy and it becomes heated, I will step in. Say my daughter has a doll that her friend wants. I respond, “Sally, would you say to Olivia, ‘Olivia, may I play with the doll when you are done playing with it?'” Sally will generally ask and vise versa. Olivia or the other child (whoever has the toy) will usually say, “Yes!”. Generally, the child gives the other child the desired toy within 2 minutes. The child feels in control and both parties are happy.

  7. avatar Green.Karrot says:

    What would you say to a toddler who won’t share her snack? If someone asks for her a cookie and she won’t share.

    Do you say “Cherry wants to have a cookie, would you like to give her some?”

    I witnessed this incident before and the parents didn’t know what to do (I didn’t either). The person who asked for the cookie acted with an exaggerated sadness for not getting a cookie and when she asks for it again, the kid then gave her a cookie then she returned the cookie back to the kid and said thank you.

    • avatar janet says:

      Children often agree to share food, but if we ask a toddler a question we should accept “no” as an answer, don’t you think? If the parent wants the child to share his snacks, she can give the toddler just a little at a time, and save some to offer another child (or adult). The person you describe sounds like she was playfully testing the child, being a lttle manipulative rather than honest.

  8. avatar Adam B says:

    Great article. I just tested this and asked my 3yo daughter who’s coloring with markers:

    me: do you like to share?
    her: yes
    me: with who?
    her: you, here’s the brown marker

    Not sure if there’s some hidden symbolism with the choice of brown but at least she wanted to share :)

    • avatar janet says:

      You have such obvious respect for your daughter. Thanks for this lovely story!

  9. avatar Neejchee says:

    My problem is convincing my 3 year old daughter NOT to share everything! She’s of the opinion that if she likes it, other people must as well, and gets quite distressed if people don’t then take what she’s offering because then they wont be able to enjoy it. “But I’m sharing!” is a commonly heard phase around here, whether she’s with kids or adults, and then I have to try to explain to her that she’s being a lovely girl asking people if they would like to share, but if they don’t want to she doesn’t have to share it. She just can’t understand that anyone would not want to share her things.

    • avatar janet says:

      Neejchee, this is fascinating, because she is attempting to connect with others by giving (rather than taking, the way most toddlers do). Learning how to play with a peer is not easy! I often observe toddlers handing toys to others to get their attention. It sounds like you’re handling the situation well, just keep sportscasting: “You want so-in-so to hold that toy, but she doesn’t seem to want it right now.” Eventually, your daughter will figure out ways to connect that work, and move from “side-by-side” play with a peer to playing together. Just keep allowing her to experiment… toddlers need lots of time to pracitice social skills.

      • avatar Andrea Bogle says:

        My child (almost 3.5 years) does the same thing but with food. When she insists on me or someone else eating something she wants to share but the person doesn’t want it, she becomes very demanding. I respond, “You are really sweet to share your food and I really appreciate it. Remember that we need to respect other people’s feelings and not force things on other people.” She will say, “Oh!” and usally back off.

  10. avatar Dawn says:

    Love this post as sharing is something that hits both home and work often. Thanks for setting children up with coping strategies at a young age. Again, I will go on to talk about older children here. I can see how many kids are used to being rescued by adults’ authority on a daily basis in upper elementary grades.(9-11 year olds) When students are working in teams or small groups, unavoidably (try as I might) there is at least one child who comes to me asking to be rescued. A rescue here would be my forcing another child to share or comply with what the first child wants. I am pretty good and putting it back to the child, restating (reporting) and asking the child to go solve the problem with their team or group. After sending the child back, I announce groups that are properly working with their materials and the behavior they are using. Another tactic I use is asking, Do I (emphasis on I) really need to solve this problem for you? Even kids in first and second grade will usually tell you no, if they have been taught to share, take turns, borrow, do something else, do something different…

  11. Ok, Janet, gonna up the ante here, what about a TEEN that appears to be having difficulty ‘sharing’ her loved ones? (e.g. an eldercare crisis has shown empathy laced with narcissism-Is lashing out a predictable (developmental?) response in flight/fight mode to worry/stress?

    Been reading Marjie’s tweet from KidsHealth on how to help kids handle worry: http://ow.ly/3gOCE Find myself in triage mode wanting to shout ‘be part of the solution, not part of the problem!’ which of course, will backfire like a loaded cannon, so won’t go there. Thoughts, oh sage rational one? :-)

    • avatar janet says:

      Amy, this is a little bit cryptic, but if I’m understanding correctly, it sounds like the teen is behaving with typical teen self-centeredness. Even a health crisis with loved ones can’t tear the focus away from ‘self’ (I’ve noticed…been there). I think it’s because the teen years are time of tremendous evolution and inner-turmoil, very similar to the toddler experience. Heck, I can even remember feeling this way… “Everybody hold it together. I don’t want to hear about your problems right now. I’m dealing with a lot here… it’s all about me!”.

      As for the “lashing out” — any emotional response to stress is normal (for both of you!). I’m sure she’s aware that she is letting you down and may be feeling frustrated, guilty, everything…. On top of that, you are probably drained and not able to be emotionally supportive of her… I’m a big believer in everybody being allowed to have their feelings with as much understanding as possible, and no judgment. I would definitely rein in any misbehaviors, but allow and acknowledge all the feelings, even if they seem inappropriate or just plain unfair!

      Ugh, I’m really sorry you are going through this. Please take good care of you.

  12. This is a lovely article and a really good resource to help my staff develop the skills they need. So often I hear parents and practitioners say “you have to share” but ‘share’ is an abstract word that is difficult for a young child to grasp. The RIE philosophy is excellent in explaining how to tune in, respect children and be good role models.
    Thanks for making it easily accessible.

  13. avatar Becky says:

    I realize this post is older, but hopefully you’ll see this comment! Thanks for writing this – it offers some peace of mind and an explanation into this common “problem” of toddlerhood!

    I like the idea of “sportscasting” and I’ve been trying to do this in other aspects of conflict as well. But my question is this – if my 2-year-old son grabs a toy from his friend, and that friend begins to cry, is it ok to simply narrate what just happened or is there a way to step in? To not insist that my son return the toy makes me worry that I’ll receive negative judgement from the other boy’s mom! This is such a touchy subject because no one wants their child to be the one taking things, but no one wants their kid to have something taken from them either!

    And along those same lines, if a child attempts to take a toy that mine is playing with, he will often respond by screaming at them or scowling and yelling “No!”. Should I address the “unkind” behavior or simply accept it as his way of communicating that he isn’t ready to give up the object? Thanks for your thoughts :)

    • avatar Samantha says:

      I have the exact same questions! I would really like to hear some thoughts as well.
      Thanks in advance. :)

    • avatar Beth says:

      I’m also curious about this.

  14. avatar janet says:

    Becky (and Samantha), with children 2 and older, I would ‘sportscast’ the first time around, probably adding some advice like, “If you weren’t done with that toy, you can tell Joey “NO, I’m using that”. Then I would stay close and if it looks like this is going to happen again, I would probably intervene. “Joey, I can’t let you take that toy. Sam is using it right now. Is there another way you can play together?”

    Here’s a post with specific examples: http://www.janetlansbury.com/2011/02/what-to-do-about-a-toddler-toy-taker/

    • avatar rachel says:

      Hi Janet, I’d love to know how you would advise in this exact situation if the 2 year old is not verbal enough to say “no, i’m using that” or anything similar. My son usually says “no” or “mine” when someone tries to take his toy and he’s not verbal enough to ask politely for a toy at 2 either, hence the grabbing. Thanks!

      • avatar rachel says:

        I’m also wondering if you could clarify how you identify the point at which you intervene and block the child from taking the toy from another toddler. For example, if one 2 year old has a ball and another 2 year old wants the ball, grabs it and runs with it, then is pursued by the first child… it becomes very heated. This situation led to both boys in tears just today. In your article, it sounds like this is typical, the toy that has “heat” and then becomes “cold” (tho it never got cold). Yet in some of the comments and the article you referenced about the Sabrina the toy taker, it sounds like you’ve suggested that the parent or caregiver intervene to prevent the second child from taking the ball in the first place (or is it only repeatedly?). I would love some clarity on this. I’ve really appreciated this article and some mom’s and I have been experimenting with the sportscaster strategy and limiting our involvement, but occasionally it feels out of hand and I’m feeling that perhaps we’re missing something. Many thanks!

  15. avatar Heike Larson says:

    I wish more parents would read this: enforced sharing is such a bad idea, yet so common!

    Toddlers and even preschoolers need so urgently to be fully absorbed in their activities, in exploring the world around them, in learning to concentrate. Just the threat of another child being able to interfere and demand “sharing” can destroy the motivation to get deeply engaged. (Could we as adults start any serious project, such as writing an article, if we constantly had to fear someone would demand we give up our computer?)

    That’s one of the reasons why Montessori schools have a simple rule for all activities: a child may only take an activity from a shelf, never from another child. When done, the child returns the activity to the shelf, and the next child is free to take it. Children may ask if they can join a friend in working with an activity, but the child who had it first may say no to such a request (kindly and politely, of course), and may continue to work with the activity until he loses interest.

    This rule eliminates so many potential points of friction: it’s so clear and simple that even 2- or 3-year-olds can quickly learn it. And it sends an important signal to the child: your activity is important; it’s good for you to get really absorbed in it, and the adults around you will help protect your private space so you can work.

  16. avatar Charleen says:

    Great post! I’m in full agreement. As a childcare provider; My question is what to do when your (almost 3 yr old) child is in a group of three children, and your child shares their crackers with only one child and not the third child?

    Also what to do if said “third” child takes the crackers knowing your child wasn’t keen on sharing with them?

    Yes my child (who originally had the crackers) would be angry at third child for taking crackers without her offering.

    As always, Thank you Janet!!!!

    • avatar janet says:

      Hi Charleen! Hmmm… Presumably all the children are being offered snacks at your wonderful childcare center… So, I think I would have to trust the children to share or not as they wished and sportscast non-judgmentally about what you see, but definitely not make a big out of it. “You wanted to try to those crackers, too, I know. And Katie said “no”. Here are some other snacks you can try if you’re hungry.”

      I would NOT treat snack time as I would play time or treat food as I would a toy. I wouldn’t allow a child to take food from another child. During meal and snack times, very young children need us to stay present and attentive (as I imagine you’re doing) and gently prevent them from taking snacks from each other, pushing, hitting, etc.

  17. avatar Jenny says:

    At what age should you expect your children to share?

  18. avatar Stacy says:

    Great post Janet! My question had to do with adult intervention. I have a 5 and a 2 year old, the 2 year old will do typical 2 year old things, take things, tantrums and my 5 year old will go “Mom!!Carson is not sharing” What do I do?? This happens atleast a dozen times a day

  19. avatar Lish says:

    Brilliant article again Janet, thank you! I can’t get over how much that S-word is used at the playgroups we attend. I’m slowly getting more confident in suggesting to other parents that it could be best to let the children sort it out themselves, but it seems like social expectations are too strong for some of them. Your article gave some more great suggestions I’ll try out!

  20. avatar amy jane says:

    Oh Janet…I love your blog! Thanks for another great article.

  21. avatar Jeffrey says:

    We talked about this exact topic on RIE class, today, in NYC. One question we discussed at length was when and how in a playground situation might it become necessary to intervene despite recognizing the complex and valuable social interaction unfolding between children via shared or contested objects. The answer seems to depend on each parent and the kind of situation. In other words, it’s ok after a point to intervene because you decide that it’s time to move on to another activity that doesn’t involve your child taking toys from the same person over and over (e.g.). But that should not be confused with teaching your child manners in those moments. Rather, we should see it as maintaining and following through on boundaries–another key part of meaningful and productive play that gets overlooked when we focus too much enforcing sharing.

  22. Thanks for this post. I would like to share with you one I wrote on sharing and respect for a child.

    http://www.montessoricircle.com/share-why-why-not/

  23. avatar Amanda says:

    Hi Janet. Love your site so much. I’ve been using RIE methods since my oldest was 7 months old. My 3 year old has a much deeper understanding of the concept of sharing now that he’s becoming more socially aware. Because of this, should I continue to sportscast when needed and intervene when he and another child are in dispute over a toy? It was much clearer about how to respond before he turned 3, but now that he’s more aware I want to make sure I’m responding properly. Thank you.

  24. avatar Seda Ay says:

    Great post!!! My 1,5 year old daughter does not feel Comfortable with the children that she do not know at first. She need five or ten minutes to get Comfortable. Ao if a knee child wants to get the toy from her she got frustated and runs away maybe cries trowing the toy. How you handle situations like these?

  25. avatar Seda Ay says:

    TGreat post!!! My 1,5 year old daughter does not feel Comfortable with the children that she do not know at first. She need five or ten minutes to get Comfortable. So if a new, first or less seen child in our regular Playground, child wants to get the toy from her she got frustated and runs away maybe cries trowing the toy away. How you handle situations like these?

  26. avatar katy says:

    Janet, this is the first time I write something to you, Im always “sportcasting” your articles, comments and your answers back and I love the way you make them so obvious to understand. Now I have a question in this topic anyone asked… what happen when my 18months boy starts hitting (when they are fighting for the toy he had) and the other kid either cries/yells or hits back and it becomes a physical fight? Of course I have to intervene at this point but what am I suppose to say? Thank you very much!

  27. avatar Chris says:

    Hi Janet,

    I love your blog and I love this post. The only thing i have a hard time with is the remark “it was kind of you”. I’d rather choose to stay away from personal judgements and say: “look at how happy X is now that (s)he has the toy.”
    I thought Pikler / Gerber stayed away from value judgements as well? am I wrong? :)

  28. avatar Lauren says:

    How are we to handle things if something is taken and the other child is obviously upset? “Sports casting” their feelings….and then what? Just let them tantrum it out? Comfort and talk to them? Redirect to another toy? My son is the older one who usually snatches from his younger nephew who then keeps crying or stares longingly for quite a while.

  29. avatar fran says:

    I think there also is something going on about the development of a sense of “self”… That a child needs to have a sense of something being hers before she can share it

    And sometimes the stakes are just too high for a child to part with something. I explain to the other child that my child wasn’t in a sharing mood at the moment.

  30. avatar Nardia says:

    Thank you so much just what I needed to read after attending a birthday party today with my 21 month old !

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