It is the rare toddler that eagerly gives up a desired toy or snack to share with another child. Yup; your child isn’t any different from the great majority of kids out there.
You may even have witnessed the “grab-and-go” move, where they take a toy from another child and then quickly escape to a corner of the room. I know it doesn’t feel great when the thief is your child, but it also doesn’t mean they are destined to be selfish or live a life of crime. It is normal for young children to behave selfishly; they haven’t fully developed the cognitive abilities that provide them with awareness of another’s perspective, nor do they fully appreciate social norms.
So, what can you do to teach your child to share?
Well, here are a few things that don’t work:
Shaming. Telling your child that they are selfish and bad because they don’t want to share isn’t going to build empathy. It may have the exact opposite effect. And they may try to hide or deny their behavior from you.
Bribing. Paying off for good behavior has been scientifically proven to backfire. Paying kids for good grades, paying employees to exercise or lose weight, etc. It won’t create a more empathetic child, but it could create a scheming child who parlays their desire for something else into a little show for you.
Begging. Pleading with your child makes you look powerless and puts your child in an awkward-but-intoxicating position. It won’t make you more credible when you deny them something or try to teach another civic lesson.
Playing the “Your behavior makes Mommy sad” card. Children desire love and will do almost anything for it, but making it appear that they have crushed your heart because they followed theirs? This is a slippery slope, and shouldn’t be taken unless you think long and hard about what you are teaching.
So what ELSE could you do or say that might elicit sharing?
You can demonstrate sharing YOUR items, and be very clear about how you made the decision and how you feel. Make sure that you admit that sometimes you want all of your snack for yourself, but then you remember how good it makes you feel when you share and see how happy the other person is.
You can also have another person say how they feel when you share with them. Children really don’t always pick up on the subtle feelings of others, and they need to hear it out loud.
When your child does share, be crystal clear about how good it makes you feel when they do. This is different from telling them how bad you feel when they don’t, and different from bribing them to share.
Read some age-appropriate books on sharing, and try to discuss how the characters felt in the story. Some kids prefer to talk about characters and not about their own feelings.
Your child may still shrug and refuse to share, or they may want to try sharing, now that they know so much more about it!
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.