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Sharing is a really important ‘skill’ for children to acquire. It helps them connect with others and it is an important part of being able to form good social relationships based on cooperation.

What’s normal?

Sharing is a really important ‘skill’ for children to acquire. It helps them connect with others and it is an important part of being able to form good social relationships based on co-operation. But, as anyone who spends time with toddlers and young children will know, it isn’t always something they find easy!

In this section we are going to look at why sharing is so difficult for children in the early years and what we might do to help them lay the foundations that will enable them to become good sharers.

Don’t expect too much too soon

One of the main mistakes we often make is setting our expectations too high, especially for younger children under three. Up to this age, children might occasionally listen to instructions about sharing, or perhaps they might even do it spontaneously, but they don’t yet have the psychological skills to understand why people do it.

For example, they can’t yet think about sharing as a caring gesture that would mean they would need to give up some of their own pleasure, so that another other person could enjoy whatever they have as well. After all, this is a pretty complex idea to understand, and it’s a bit too difficult for a child of this age to manage. 

Sometimes it might look to you as though a child is happily sharing, but they may actually be motivated by other needs, or wishes. For example, it could be the fear of being told off, or that they simply want to please the adult more than they want whatever they have. So, although the child might do what was asked of them, they won’t really understand why they are being asked to do this. This means they are not really learning to share.

Whilst this might be ok when the child is not really interested in the toy, it is more problematic if it involves something that the child really wants. This is because, as they get older, children do naturally start to develop a sense of ownership of things (which is actually a really important part of their development).

What about toddlers who share really easily? Could this be that they just feel really secure and are more interested in engaging with adults than ‘things’, leading them not to worry when things are taken from them? Perhaps, sometimes, but they might also actually be feeling cross inside and just not showing it. The fact that they aren’t expressing how they really feel could indicate the beginning of a tendency to shut down their needs, rather than feeling able to express their real wishes and feelings.

A slightly less clear-cut example might be when the toddler is initiating the sharing themselves, for example when they share some of their food with the person helping them to eat, or with another child; surely this is sharing? While this does highlight the gradual development of this skill, it is on the child’s terms rather than those of the adult. The toddler is testing out responses and sharing their pleasure, but at a time when this feels unthreatening. It is a very different story if the adult intervenes when a child is not sharing and attempts to take something at the point when the child is claiming it.

Don’t force young children to share

A toddler is just starting to realise that they are a person in their own right. As part of this they will start to recognise something as ‘mine!’, in contrast, for example to it belonging to their parent.

For them, holding onto an item is not so much a case of being selfish, as about a natural urge to express themselves as an individual. With that in mind, if you take things away from them to teach them how to share, it can be confusing and upsetting for them. They can also feel that their right to explore and take more control of things is not being acknowledged.

But of course some things will need to be removed from them. It isn’t ever a good idea to leave them with a dangerous object, no matter how much they might be learning from the process of getting hold of it. But this is very different to when a toy is taken from them and given to another child in front of them. In this moment they are likely to be left wondering what on earth is going on, and why! If you force them to give up things before they are ready, this is much more likely to lead to an increase of selfish behaviour. They will be more likely to want to hold onto things because they are really worried that they might be about to lose something they really value.

Talk to children about ‘taking turns’ rather than ‘sharing’

‘Sharing’ can be an unhelpful term to use with children under 3 years old. Children can be taught to take turns on swings or with the toy cars in a garage before they are able to understand the idea of sharing or playing together. Encouraging ‘turn taking’ will also help them to learn to wait and to manage feelings of frustration.

Help children learn not to snatch

Teaching a young child not to snatch an item that they want from a child is also a much more age appropriate strategy than expecting the other child who is involved to share with them. This is because you will be teaching the child how to control their impulses. This is a key skill that toddlers need to learn – and it helps them understand that there are sometimes ‘boundaries’ that they need to respect. They will also learn about what is not theirs to take.

This is important and doing it will help them build up more of an understanding around the idea of sharing.

Support a child if they have had something taken from them by another child

If a child has had an item that is important to them snatched away from them by another child, it’s important to support them and to acknowledge their feelings. You can also help them ‘label’ the emotions that they are feeling. You can then help them find another item to play with.

Praise them when they do share or take turns

Children do start to enjoy the positive reactions they get from others when they share, and this encourages them to do it more.

Highlight how good it feels to be shared with!

Slowly children start to learn how nice it feels when someone else shares something with them.

Whilst the snatching lesson is important, it’s good to remember that discovering the joy of ‘being shared with’ is the other side of the coin when it comes to children learning about sharing.

Slowly, with time they will put all the different bits together and they will also come to realise that sharing can also be a powerful way for them to connect with other people.

Show children how to share by giving them examples

You can help children to learn to share by physically showing them examples of what good sharing is. Show them how to take turns, or let them take hold of items that you may be holding if they are interested in them (as long as they are safe). This will support their wish to explore and be curious. And again, this will help them experience how nice it feels to be shared with. Once they have satisfied their curiosity, they are very likely to want to give it back. This will also teach them that things can be held and enjoyed without the need to cling on to them permanently.

Support parents and carers to understand how the sharing skill develops

If an adult is putting a lot of importance on encouraging their child to share, think about why this is. Do they feel disrespected by their child, or are they feeling embarrassed about what other people think of their child’s behaviour? It may be useful to help them connect with their own feelings. For might be better for the child if they understand them, and try to manage them, instead of setting unrealistic expectations. You can also help them to understand what is normal for a child of that age in developmental terms, and what is not realistic.

  • Don’t force young children under three to share. They aren’t yet ready in their development.
  • Talk to children about ‘taking turns’, rather than ‘sharing’. This is an easier idea for them to understand.
  • Focus also on encouraging children not to snatch. You can do this by noticing and talking about the frustration they might feel at not being able to have what they want, and by helping them find an alternative item to play with.
  • Demonstrate good sharing behaviour. Share with them and others around you, and show them how to manage their impulse to snatch when they are curious about something.
  • Remember also that sharing and connecting is more important to focus on than getting the child ask for something politely, as this is hard for a young child and it will take time and practice.