The Mystery of Sharing

Multiple kids means multiple toys and usually multiple battles over who gets to play with what. We wanted to minimize the battles and learn how to encourage our children to take turns with their stuff.

“Please share!”

These are words that seem to be the battle cry of parents everywhere. No matter how often they are told, preschoolers and toddlers seem to have trouble understanding the concept. There is a good developmental explanation for why young children have trouble sharing: for a child to truly “share,” he has to be able to take another person’s point of view. That is, he must understand how another will feel if denied a toy or a turn. Theory of mind is the fancy term for this, but the most important piece of information a parent needs to know is that when your young child grabs a toy from another or refuses to share it is because she has not yet integrated the idea that her actions can cause another to feel mad or sad. It is not unusual for a child who makes a peer cry, to then show empathy to that same child!

While parents cannot rush the developmental process, there are actions you can take to deepen your child’s understanding and help them learn how to solve these conflicts on their own. While you may be able to make a child share in the moment, teaching them to figure out solutions on their own is the ultimate goal.

Use descriptive language:

When children are struggling over a toy, instead of yelling a directive like: “Stop!” see if you can describe the situation. You might say something like: I see that you both want that fire truck now and you are both feeling pretty mad. Then, pause. Often just putting into words what the children are feeling helps them stop their struggle. Then you can positively empower the children by asking them if they can figure out a way for both of them to have a turn.

Don’t play Solomon:

It is virtually impossible for an adult to figure out “who had it first” so when children continue to fight, neutralize the situation by telling them: I see you can’t manage with this toy today. I will put it away and you can try another time.

Develop your child’s empathy:

If your child makes a friend sad, help him see the effect of his action by saying: Look at Tom’s face. He is so sad. What can you do to make him feel better? You will be astonished at how even an older toddler can think of ways to make amends.

Accept feelings, but not inappropriate actions:

If a child grabs from another or reacts negatively to a child who will not give him a turn, tell him: I understand how mad you are that Amy took your toy but hitting is not allowed. You can be as mad as you want but you need to think of a way to let Amy know how you feel with your words, not your hands -and then have him make amends. (Of course, they must use words that don’t hurt!)

Use these techniques with siblings:

Keep in mind that close in age siblings will have similar interests and are likely to have more conflicts in play. The language techniques described above work quite well with siblings. Consistency is important, but recognize that sometimes you will not have the time to allow this process to unfold.

Give age its due:

To keep the peace, parents sometimes ask an older child to “give in” to the demands of younger sibling. Not only is this unfair to the eldest but it is robs the younger child of the opportunity for solving the conflict. Allow your older child to keep certain special toys or games just for themselves.

Develop house rules:

There are often fights about which DVD to play or where a child sits in the car. Once a child is about 3, you can create house rules. Together talk about what would be fair; perhaps rotating who gets to choose the show or the special seat. Write them down and post them on your fridge-use pictures if your child isn’t reading.

Be a role model:

Probably the most important thing you can do is to make it clear how sharing with others makes you, and other people, feel good inside.

— Susan Glaser is an Early Childhood Consultant and was the Director of Early Childhood Services for the Jewish Community Center of Cleveland for over 15 years. She currently does consultations and assessments for early childhood centers, parent coaching and travels around the country presenting parenting seminars. Susan is also the mother of three grown children and the grandmother of a 15 month old.For more information on her practice or for a consultation visit