Why Toddlers Won’t Share and What We Can Do

A parent writes that for the past few weeks her son’s 3-year-old playmate will not share his toys. He cries, “That’s mine… he can’t play with it,” tries to take the toys back, and often has meltdowns. While she says her boy doesn’t seem particularly fazed by the behavior, the other boy’s mother is distressed and confused about expectations she should set about sharing toys at home. The writer says: “For my part, I’d begun to feel a bit protective for my son, while at the same time understanding that possessiveness is common and expected in children their age.” Since these two boys have been playing together exclusively during the pandemic, the parents want their interactions to be positive. Both parents are anxious to know what’s appropriate in terms of limits, expectations, and interventions and would like Janet’s advice.

Transcript of “Why Toddlers Won’t Share and What We Can Do”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today I’m going to be talking a little about one of my favorite topics, actually, sharing and children engaging with each other with toys. How can we understand this? How can we handle the difficulties children have? What is our role in play between two children, whether they be peers or siblings? And I just want to frame this with one of my favorite, very simple, but perceptive quotes from Magda Gerber, which is, “If we make a child share, that’s not sharing.” So let’s figure this out.

Okay. So, first I’m going to read this email that I received:

Greetings Janet. I refer often to your website and podcasts for guidance because the advice is spot on and worked so well with my son. However, after searching your content, I was unable to find anything that spoke directly to the issue we’ve encountered.

My son, who’s two and a half, and I see my close friend and her son three years old, about twice a week for play dates. We meet at parks, other safe outdoor venues, and occasionally at my home or her home for an indoor play date. They are our bubble family during the pandemic and our sons play together exclusively. Both of us are confused about certain aspects of sharing and how to best manage it in different contexts and ages.

For example, my expectation when she and her son visit our home is that he is free to play with the toys that are around. Otherwise, what is the point of a play date at home if not to play with new toys? So far, my son isn’t distressed by sharing his toys. Play dates at our house go smoothly. But I think that’s in part because difficulty sharing doesn’t appear to be an issue yet.

However, the last few times we’ve visited our friend’s home, her son didn’t want my boy to play with anything. More often than not, when my son went to play with something, he would begin to cry and say, ‘He can’t play with it’. And, ‘That’s mine’, and physically attempt to stop him from playing with it by taking it from him. My son didn’t seem too fazed and I sat and observed quietly while he responded by moving onto something else. But the pattern continued a few more times.

My friend’s son had two meltdowns during our visit of about two hours. It distressed my friend because she was unsure how to handle her son’s strong reaction and expressed confusion about the expectations she should set about sharing toys at home. She’d asked her son to put away some toys in advance that he didn’t want my boy to play with, but also expressed some hesitation to set an expectation that the rest would be fair game during the play date.

For my part, I’d begun to feel a bit protective for my son while at the same time, understanding possessiveness is common and expected in children their age. It left my friend and I both a bit puzzled over how to best facilitate these interactions. For now my friend wants to put play dates at her house on hold until we sort through how to address this together.

My main question then is, should sharing be expected to some degree in a home setting where the toys belong exclusively to one child, or is it never appropriate to expect a child at this age to share with his peers if they don’t want to? Your thoughts and ideas are most welcome. Thank you, Janet.

Okay. So I guess I should start first with her question here at the end. “Should sharing be expected to some degree in a home setting where the toys belong exclusively to one child, or is it never appropriate to expect a child to share with his peers?”

So I think the idea of an expectation might be getting in the way a bit here, or at least the expectations that she’s mentioning. What we can expect with children engaging together, whether they be peers or siblings, is that it’s going to be a learning experience for both of them. And yes, there will be times when children need our help when they get stuck in patterns of behavior that aren’t comfortable for them or unsafe in some way. So we will need to pay attention at this age, probably, maybe not every minute, but to certainly be available to ideally help. And in terms of children sharing or not, that will be dependent on that child’s comfort in a situation.

There are a lot of reasons that children have difficulty sharing toys, whether they be their toys or mutual toys. They’re all quite innocent. Sometimes it’s really more about, “Oh, he has that toy and that looks really interesting in his hand. I want to use that too.” Or, “Oh, I don’t want him to take something out of my hand even though I’m not actually using this. I just don’t want that interaction.” But then when it becomes a pattern as this parent’s describing, the reasons usually come under the heading of ‘control.’

And it’s quite clear when this is an older sibling with a younger sibling — why that child would be trying to hold on to control — because this big change has happened. The child has lost their footing in terms of their life and their family. If I just can hold onto all this stuff and not let that baby have anything, then I think I’m going to feel better. I actually don’t, but it’s just an impulse that I have to hold on.

I think as adults we can relate to this. Well, I can, at least. I can relate to, well, let’s just say in terms of decluttering… I will go into my closet and feel like I should maybe give up certain things, give away things that I’m not really using. But at the same time, depending on my mood, I don’t want to let go. Then I’ll have another mood where I’ll look at these same items and it’s so obvious to me that I should let go of them, give them away. But I feel those shifts in my mood, I think depending on how comfortable I am inside with other things going on in my life.

Another example might be that we have a house guest and we enjoy this person, but, oh, they’re using certain things that we didn’t expect them to use. (I hope this isn’t just me because I’m going to feel like I’m the most selfish person in the world), but we feel these pangs of they’re taking our stuff or we’re going to have less of something. There’s this feeling of loss. The same with the clothes in the closet. Am I going to miss this? Am I going to feel a loss? And I’m going to hold on.

So maybe, there are other adults out there besides me that can relate to these feelings. With children they’re very, very strong.

So to really understand and be able to help children, the most important first thing for us to do is to remove our adult lenses of judgment —  maybe fear that my child is becoming a bad person or that, in the case of the parent that reached out to me, that her child is going to be somebody that doesn’t stand up for himself. I understand that concern as well.

So all these concerns we have as parents, all these adult judgments that we have, those are going to get in our way. They’re not going to lead us to understanding what’s really happening here. And until we understand what’s really happening, we cannot really intervene in a helpful way.

In this case, while we may not understand the particulars, all we know is that he’s challenged in this situation, that he’s uncomfortable. He wants to hold on instead of let go there to play with his friend. And as this parent mentions, it’s a very, very normal feeling that children have. So we want to be on his side here, which I think these parents are. I’m not seeing anything other than that.

But then circling back to this idea of what can we expect, because this comes up a lot in this parent’s note — confusion about the expectation she should set about sharing toys at home. So in a way, expectations are, actually… for us as parents, that’s one of the ways that we want to hold on to control. If I have these expectations, it’s going to go this way. So what I’m saying is to allow these situations to be fluid and not get bound in by either our adult lenses or our adult expectations where we want it to be really clear. Well, these are the rules.

Children are in a process. They’re not going to feel bound by these rules, or necessarily going to be able to fulfill them in any given moment.

So again, all I would expect is a learning experience for both children. And in the three-year-old’s case, it sounds like he has some feelings to process here for sure. In that sense, this can be a therapeutic experience for him. He may be bringing in feelings about a big transition in his life, or it could just be a developmental experience of developing so rapidly as children do in these early years. And I’ve lost my footing a bit here. And so I want to hold on.

The first thing I would do if I was this boy’s parent, and even as the other parent possibly… Sometimes these things happen where our child is maybe bearing the brunt of it. Although, I don’t think it really is that much of a brunt. And so can we say something to that other child? And yes, we can. What I would do is acknowledge and encourage those feelings.

So let’s say the first time this happened, or the first couple of times this happened, I’m not going to have a hard and fast rule, but maybe I don’t stop the child from taking the toy away. Maybe I didn’t know it was going to happen and it just happened. It’s better just to let it go rather than to have an urgent response. So this happened and I acknowledge. “Wow, you didn’t want to let him have that.”

I’m acknowledging without judgment. Acknowledging without feeling my heart sinking, that my child is the wrong kind of person. Because I have this different lens on, a clearer lens without projection. Actually with the understanding that I will be inclined to project, but I don’t want to. I want to see what’s just happening here.

So this other boy wanted this toy and started to use it, and my son was upset and took it back. That’s all I know. “Ah, you didn’t want him to have that. That was uncomfortable for you.” Just the smallest thing to let our child know that I see you. I’m here for you. I don’t judge you. And I’m curious, I’m interested in what’s going on.

So then let’s say it happens again. Now I’m going to intervene a little more. Not because I feel so sorry for the boy that didn’t get the toy, but because I want to help my guy who’s stuck in this discomfort and trying to control everything. That’s not a fun place to be. So that’s why I’m intervening. Not to do what’s “fair” and “right” and all that, but because I care about this guy. And I’m not going to feel sorry for him, but I can empathize that for whatever reason, he’s struggling.

So with all of that, it doesn’t really matter what I say. I don’t have to say “This is frustrating for you” or anything that I’m not sure about. I’m just going to say “You didn’t want him to take that.” Only what I know.

And then it happens again, “Yeah. It’s hard to let him have any of your toys today.” But now I’m going to intervene. My hand is there. “Oh yeah. He’s taking that one too. And it looks like you’re saying no, but I’m going to stop you.”

The meltdown that this mother said this child had, that is the gold actually in this, because that’s where he’s releasing the feelings. If we can accept those and acknowledge those and welcome those as the parent, I know it’s hard when you’re judging and you don’t understand why he’s doing this and it’s confusing and you feel like it’s not right. That’s what we want to put away to just connect and empathize as best we can, or at least just accept and connect that way. “You didn’t want this to happen! Oh, yeah. I know. Now you want that too. I hear you. It’s really, really tough to let friends use your toys. I know.” Welcoming this. That’s the key.

So it sounds like he had the meltdowns. Maybe the parent could work more on normalizing, welcoming this while setting a limit when she needs to, because her child is stuck.

What’s interesting, I love that this parent, she was observing and she said, “My son didn’t seem too fazed. And I sat and observed quietly while he responded by moving onto something else.” So what an empowering experience for this boy. He problem solved.

I’ve seen this a lot with children in my classes where there’ll be one child that wants all the stuff and there’ll be another child that’s letting go of all the stuff. And which child is more powerful in that moment, which child is more comfortable, free? The child that is letting this stuff go. It’s just stuff.

And yeah, if we really observe through the eyes of the children, then we see that this isn’t some terrible, tragic thing that’s happening to my boy. They’re having a learning experience here.

One thing I would like to counter in this parent’s note where she talked about: “the expectation that she and her son visit our home is that he’s free to play with the toys that are around. Otherwise, what’s the point of a play date at home if not to play with new toys?”

Well, the point of a play date, I think for children, if we see through the children’s eyes…  Yeah, new toys they’re fun… But the point of the play date is to connect with that other child. To learn from that other child. To have an experience. And that’s something that I think we can all easily miss when we’re trying to get kids to share, or even trying to get them to take turns — that those requests we’re making are often separating the children. “Okay, you play with this alone until you’re done. And then you can play with this.”

Children can play with their toys at home by themselves, as long as they need to. That’s not what I believe that play dates are about for children. The person’s always much more interesting than the toy. And this boy in this situation his parent describes is learning a lot of interesting things about other children, their behavior. How do you deal with someone that’s obviously uncomfortable like that?

It’s all good. It’s all good learning. So I wouldn’t have hard and fast rules about anything. “They have to share this many toys. They’re going to take turns.” There may be a moment where we say, “Oh, now you want this too, but I’m going to ask you to wait until he’s done.” And my hand is there so he can’t take it away. I wouldn’t insist “take turns, take turns, share, share.”

Now there are a couple of things I would do to help set this boy up for success if he’s having difficulties with that sense of wanting to control everything. If he’s having those feelings, one thing that can help is like what this family did, but it’s turning it around a little more to give the child more of a sense of healthy control. Instead of putting the toys away that we don’t want the other child to use, “Let’s put out all the toys that we want to have available for our guest.” Letting your child choose that is more of a sense of control than: Oh shoot. I meant to put that one away too. And I didn’t put it away and now he’s using it! Those pangs that children feel. Again, it’s not reasonable. It’s just a feeling.

So let him feel as on top of the situation as you can, but still expect anything. Expect children to be themselves, to be their authentic emotional, putting it all out there, this is what I’m working on right now, selves. It’s all good. And if this parent isn’t comfortable with play dates at their house for a while, that’s okay too. Maybe her child is going through a phase. But I hope I’ve given you suggestions for how to handle it that you can feel comfortable with: perceiving this as normal, all feelings welcome. We do have behavior limits at some point to help the child who’s getting stuck. But we’re ready for children to show us where they’re at.

And also I would let go of being bound by those house rules. “You’ve got to let those toys be shared and not those toys.” Because I think in these situations, although house rules generally are helpful to children, for us, this can get in the way of being open and observing and helping children where they’re at.

Now, if this isn’t a safe setting where the children know each other and the parents know each other already, and you’re out in public and your child wants to take a toy away from another child, I would definitely set a limit right there. And with the same nonjudgmental attitude. “I’m going to stop you. It looks like you’re interested in that.” So this isn’t to be taken out anywhere to let children explore this way.

And just to touch on quickly, because I got another note right after I got this one from a parent. It was very brief. And they said that their older one was taking toys away from the younger one. They felt it was mean. And again, right there, when we’re going that direction… (Very normal for us to do, I’m not judging anyone for doing that.) …We’re seeing through an adult lens instead of seeing: Why is my child wanting to hold on to everything? There’s discomfort there. And at what point should I help my child to stop?

I worked with a family that said it’d become a game for the younger child to pick up another toy. And then they would just hand it off to the older child because they knew the older child was going to take it away. That actually became their game. And because the parent hadn’t put their projections out there that something terrible was going on here when that happened, it actually didn’t happen that often. That older child didn’t feel ignited by the parent’s emotions. Our emotions just inject more discomfort into the situation. So these children were free to have a game that was fine with both of them. And it didn’t become this intense, impulsive thing that the older child got stuck in.

But yes, if it was continuing and I felt like my older child was uncomfortable or if they were taking the baby’s toys and hiding them or whatever… Yeah, I would stop that for sure, to help that older child not be stuck inside that controlled state that’s so tight and uncomfortable. And that would look like my child letting go with strong meltdown, I’m sure.

That release would make my child feel better. I didn’t cause it, I didn’t try to make it happen, but I set the reasonable boundary that helped my child to do that.

And the last thing I’m going to say: it wasn’t about the toy. It isn’t about that specific toy. It’s about the feelings our children are bringing into situations.

So I hope that wasn’t too long winded. I really hope some of that helped. Thank you to these parents for sharing their stories with me. I think I could probably talk for days on this topic because I do find it fascinating. Our children see things so differently than we do a lot of the time. It’s really much more fun to remove our lenses and try to see through theirs.

And by the way, if my podcasts are helpful to you, you can help the podcast continue by giving it a positive review on iTunes. So grateful to all of you for listening! And please check out some of the other podcasts on my website, JanetLansbury.com. They’re all indexed by subject and category, so you should be able to find whatever topic you might be interested in.

And both of my books are available on audio, please check them out. Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting and No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame. You can even get them for free from Audible by following the link in the liner notes of this podcast, or you can go to the books section of my website and find them there. You can also get them in paperback at Amazon, and in ebook at Amazon, Barnes And Noble, and apple.com.

Thanks again for listening. We can do this.

2 Comments

Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Wow, that was a lot. Ok. I feel for these only child children who don’t get a sibling up in their face every day. Most conflict between siblings is actually possession of something physical, property, not any other kind. One study says 95%. Yes, that is huge. While it is interesting to focus on the emotions here, the idea is that the sense of justice and fairness (which is the basis of sharing and turn-taking) needs to be encouraged and developed. Certainly the feelings of the child should be validated. However, missing from the discussion above is the idea that it is good to share, it is nice to give, it is just to take turns. Yes, rules can get in the way of feelings, but they are still rules to help instill these ethical impulses. Feelings should be addressed, validated, etc., but it is very important for the children to begin to take perspectives, such as how they feel when things are taken from them. This as I mentioned in the beginning is so much more readily apparent in a house with more than one child, as they deal with this all the time. Certainly this kind of issue isn’t solved once and forall, but it is nevertheless good to get the basis of behavior change not only in emotions (the idea that being selfish is a bad emotion doesn’t really bear out, as the selfish child got what they wanted), but in our shared community behavior. That is, that the child can play with the toy when it is their turn, that the toy is not going away forever, but that they can be kind and share with others.

  2. Love the post, very insightful. It does leads to another situation that I am lost as to what to do. Setting: it is a children’s bday party of a not so close friend, so most people big or small are stranger to me and my children. At one point while I have attention elsewhere my 18 mo has someone else’s toy in her hand and the other child was crying. I waited for a little while to see what is to happened, and my child was starring at the crying child thinking which I wish I could read mind at the time. The other child’s cry intensified. Normally I would just wait and see what is to happened. However another parent who is closer to the two children has turned to my child (sitting down) and said “Sha-re~”. My child then hold on to the toy closer to her body as I walked closer, kneeled down, and I said ‘you wanted that toy, but I can’t let you have that’ while I have 1 hand holding onto the toy firmly. My child yell/scream/arched back try to pull the toy out of my hand but have eventually let go. I put the toy on the floor while I pick up my crying child and walked away to another area to cry it out.

    I am doubting my approach but given the social setting I really don’t know how else I can let my child explore with other children while trying to avoid other parents labeling my child as a brat.

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