Ann Barbour, Ph.D.
Professor of early childhood education
How to get children to share is an age-old parent dilemma. Just like learning to do other things, learning how to share is something that takes time, and for most kids, it isnít always easy. They want what other kids have. If theyíre very young Ė they may not understand what sharing means Ė thatís itís a give and take.
Children donít learn to share by being told or by being forced to do so. Being able to share depends on their stage of development and their understanding of what sharing means. It also depends on whether the experiences they have as they grow help them freely choose to share. There are lots of things you can do to help children learn to share but these will take time and support. Parents and others can encourage sharing when they themselves share things with kids and model sharing with others, when they encourage turn-taking activities, and when they reinforce kids for sharing. Having realistic expectations for how and when each child is able to share will also help adults know how best to support each child in the process.
Learning to Share is a Process
Itís a developmental process. Very young children donít understand the concept of sharing. They are egocentric in their thinking Ė not because they are selfish or spoiled Ė but because they havenít yet developed the thought processes to be able to see things from other peoplesí perspectives, to think logically, or to understand cause and effect relationships.
There is a progression in how children typically share. Toddlers are mainly focused on understanding who they are apart from other people. That includes the concept ownership and they apply their understanding of ownership to everything: Itís mine!
They also donít understand that when they give something to someone that they will eventually get it back. Three-year-olds are gradually learning to share but often still have difficulty. Four-year-olds can usually understand the concept, but it is important to allow them time to have their own possessions and to communicate clearly what your expectations are about sharing and when itís OK not to share. Even though being able to share is an age-related process, some kids will have a harder time learning to share than others. And some kids will have an easier time sharing, in some situations, than in others Ė say, at preschool or childcare but not at home.
Do Kids Needs to Share Everything?
I donít think they do need to share everything. After all, adults donít share everything. If children have some things they donít need to share (a few favorite toys or stuffed animals) and they know adults will help them ďprotectĒ these things, they tend to be more likely to share other things. In the process, theyíre experiencing how sharing extends their play and makes others happy and make them feel generous.
Forcing a child to share may actually backfire and make him want to hold on to things even more because he doesnít have the security of knowing when and if heíll get the things back he was forced to share. But if we point out that others want a turn with something the child is playing with and ask that they give it to that child when theyíre done playing with it, they can relax Ė knowing it wonít be taken away from them Ė and are usually more willing to share.
Parentsí Expectations About Sharing
We need to have realistic expectations for childrenís capacity to share. We also need to understand that it will be hard for them at times because of their age/developmental stage, and because there are certain situations that make it more difficult. But having said that, itís also important to establish some ground rules which might be:
First, if you want something that someone else has or that belongs to someone else, you need to ask first. (You can support little ones in learning the words to use. Itís more difficult for them because they donít yet have language to express what they want, so they show that by taking things.)
Second, itís your choice to share when someone else asks to use something you have. But if you say ďno,Ē you either need to give a reason or suggest another alternative: ďThis is my favorite, but you can play with theseĒ or ďIím playing with it now, but you can play with it when Iím done.Ē
Helping Siblings to Share
If kids have trouble sharing with siblings, it may be related to maintaining their own space or to sharing your attention. So allowing them to have things they donít need to share and providing special one-on-one attention can help make this easier.
Adults can help children feel good when they share something by pointing out how they made another child happy. ďLook how happy you made him.Ē Recognition and praise are reinforcing and make it more likely that children will repeat the behavior.
Grandmother of two
I try to role model sharing. Iíll buy a pizza and Iíll give each person 2 slices. We all know that Paige canít eat 2 slices. Natavia canít eat 2 slices. So in the end what theyíll do is theyíll say OK, you can have this or you can have that. They end up sharing their food.
Preschool teacher for 16 years
I don't "make" the children in my care share, I give them a choice to share or not. If they choose at that particular time not to share something with another child, that's OK with me, because it's now up to the other child who has to learn something that goes arm in arm with sharing--and that's waiting.
When your child shares, acknowledge them by saying, for instance, "You shared your toy with Penny, which was nice of you." Reflect on it again when you're saying goodbye or goodnight. Also acknowledge when they've had to wait, making it a positive experience, because there'll be times when the wait could be long and you need to acknowledge that, too.