Not a week goes by that a parent or nanny asks me how to get a young child, usually under 3, to share. I get it; it is embarrassing when a toddler rips a toy away from another child, or has a death grip on a toy car while growling at their playdate friend.
Sharing isn’t something that comes naturally to most kids. The rare child that hands over a toy when asked isn’t the average child. You have to teach this behavior, and you have a couple of choices. Only one is going to give you any peace:
- Threats: Telling your child that if he doesn’t share that he will lose his valued toy. This may work in the short run, but like spanking, you teach a child that violence or the threat of violence is the way to power. We have too much of that already.
- Shame: Telling a child that they are not nice people because they don’t want to share isn’t any better. It doesn’t make it much kinder to say “You aren’t being nice right now” because you still haven’t acknowledged the child’s feelings. Don’t we all carry around more shame than we can handle? I know no one thinks they are shaming their child by saying this. Stop now. Make a better choice.
- Empathy followed by reality: Using the Fast Food Rule, you tell the child what you think they are thinking “You don’t want to share; you want that car only for you” or an even simpler version “You say NO SHARE”. When the child nods or in some physical or verbal way indicates that they understand you and agree that this is their opinion, you add sympathy to your voice and say something like “I am SO sorry, but it is XXX’s turn now. You will get another turn later”. Many times the child will hand over the car. Sometimes you will have to take it, but they might not flip out. Your empathy and their intelligence (if they are over 18 months old, they have had experience with sharing) will help them accept the reality. Read Stop The Whining With The Fast Food Rule for more details on Dr. Harvey Karp’s excellent strategy.
Of course, if your child is exhausted, hungry, ill, or going through a change in routine, home, caregivers, new sibling, etc. all bets are off. They are living on the edge, and thing could fall apart. What do you do then? You feed, give a nap, a hug, and remember that asking a stressed child to share isn’t going to go very well. But you also use all Dr. Karp’s positive strategies, the ones he calls Time-Ins. Things like Patience Stretching Stretch Your Toddler’s Patience, Starting Today! and Gossiping Let Your Toddler Hear You Gossiping (About Him!).
The altruism that gives birth to sharing should not be expected in children under 2. We ask them to follow our sharing rules, and have to help them grow to an age and a place in which they can comprehend what sharing is really about. You may have to wait until 4 or 5 to see your child really understand how the other child is feeling and why sharing with them works better than being selfish. At a very young age, it is enough that they know we understand where they are coming from and we will help them follow this important social rule.