Learning to share can be difficult for young children. What can you do to help?
Sharing is an essential skill for getting along with others, but it can be challenging for young children.
Sharing: A difficult concept to grasp
When children first show an interest in the objects and toys around them, they can’t tell the difference between what’s theirs and what they want. As soon as they get their hands on a toy, they think, “Mine!” rather than “I really want to play with this!”
You shouldn’t expect your child to fully grasp the concept of sharing before they’re 4 years old. In fact, many 5- and 6-year-olds are still learning to share.
To help your child understand sharing, bring them to places like the playground where they can play near other children without necessarily interacting with them. It’s a great way for them to get used to other children and start to socialize.
Sharing at every age
Babies and young toddlers know what they want, when they want it. At this age, children believe that everything within reach belongs to them. Before they can distinguish between what’s theirs and what’s not, they need to develop self-awareness. They feel threatened when other kids touch their toys, especially those they’re very attached to, like a favourite teddy bear or doll.
Toddlers aged 18 to 24 months enjoy playing near one another without interacting directly. This is called parallel play.
Although they love being around other children and want to imitate their behaviour, they prefer to have their own space and toys. A child gradually realizes that they’re a separate person with their own identity as they get older.
By the age of 2, children begin to understand that some toys belong to them, while others belong to their playmates. However, they still have trouble understanding what borrow means. A young toddler may not understand that their toy will be returned to them later. It may be easier for them to swap toys, because they get something in return.
When children begin to express themselves more clearly, around age 3, they can learn sentences like “I want this toy, please” and “Can I borrow that?” Toddlers this age also find it easier to wait their turn and lend toys they’re no longer using. They seek out and enjoy playing with other children for short periods. They spend much of their playtime thinking about questions like, “Who has the toy?,” “What are they playing?,” and “Whose turn is it?” This is all very normal behaviour. Children this age are developing the skills they need to make friends.
If, by age 4, your child is still not playing cooperatively and is hostile when another child tries to play with them, it’s best to consult an early childhood development expert. They’ll be able to help your little one acquire certain social skills before they start school.
At age 4, children are beginning to understand the concept of sharing. They’re better at communicating and waiting their turn, and they enjoy giving and receiving. As their language skills (link in French) improve, they’re increasingly able to express their emotions with words rather than aggressive behaviour (e.g., biting, throwing objects). Consequently, they have fewer conflicts with other children. This is a sign of maturity and emotional self-regulation.
At this age, children are able to consider other points of view, even though they’re still very self-centred. With a little help from a grown-up, they can learn that if an object is special to them, it may also be special to another child. While they lack some of the skills required to resolve playground conflicts on their own, they’re more receptive to what other kids have to say.
When your child takes toys
Will your child often snatch a toy from a friend when, just five minutes earlier, that same toy was free on the play mat? This is because your little one is seeing the toy in action. As they watch it come alive in another child’s hands, they get curious and want to play with it.
How to encourage sharing
The following tips can help you teach your child about sharing:
- Give your little one space to play near other kids while still having room for their own toys and games.
Lead by example. If you share with your child, they’ll learn to do the same and give objects voluntarily.
As soon as your child can talk, teach them sentences to help them connect with others: “Do you want to play with me?,” “Can you lend me your ball?,” “That’s mine,” “That’s yours,” etc.
- Help your child put themselves in other people’s shoes by talking about how they feel and how other people feel. For example, you could say, “You’re happy when you play with your doll,” or “Your friend is sad because he doesn’t have a toy.”
- Praise your child when they’re able to share and take turns. Describe their playmate’s feelings: “Look, your friend is smiling! She’s so happy you gave her a turn with the ball.”
If your child wants their playmate’s toy, distract them with a fun object or game. This is a great way to teach them patience.
- Show your child how to swap: “I can lend you my doll if you want. Can I have something in exchange?”
- Name what belongs to your child (e.g., their clothes, their toys, their bed), what belongs to their siblings, and what belongs to the whole family (e.g., the household TV, the bathroom hand soap). This will help your child understand the concept of ownership.
- If your child is fighting with a playmate over a toy, help them find a solution instead of resolving the conflict yourself. This will allow them to develop the skills they need to settle arguments on their own. If you think they need some guidance, give them a choice: “Do you want to ask her for a different toy in exchange, or would you rather lend her your toy in five minutes?” Your child can then decide what to do.
If there are many kids present and your child finds sharing difficult, suggest an activity or game that can be played solo.
Sharing gifts during the holidays
If your child receives a gift over the holidays, they may not want to share it right away. Try to establish a sharing rule. For instance, in the hour after unwrapping, your little one can choose whether or not to lend their new toy. Then, ask them to pick a short window—say, five minutes—where other children can look at and handle their toy.
How to avoid bickering
Here are some strategies to help you limit disputes while your child is learning to share:
- Don’t force your child to play with others if they don’t want to. Instead, point out what the other kids are doing.
- Give your child time to enjoy a new toy before asking them to share it.
- Put away your child’s favourite toys when you have other kids over.
- Don’t force your child to share a toy they’re especially attached to (e.g., their favourite teddy bear or doll). However, you can encourage them to lend other toys.
- Organize play dates in public places, like parks or playgrounds.
- Try to avoid exposing your child to large groups of children. For example, at your little one’s birthday party, limit the number of guests. A good rule of thumb is to invite only as many kids as your child’s age: two friends if they’re turning 2, three friends if they’re turning 3, etc.
It takes time for children to be ready for sharing, so don’t expect too much, too soon. It’s important to avoid punishing your child if they refuse to share or take turns. They should share because they want to, not because they feel forced.
Things to keep in mind
Before age 4, it’s normal for children to have difficulty sharing.
Your child needs to develop empathy and learn how to take turns before they can share.
To encourage sharing, point out how happy it makes the other child when your little one lends a toy.
Scientific review: Solène Bourque, psychoeducator
Research and copywriting: The Naître et grandir team
Updated: December 2018
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Monloubou, Laure. C’est à moi! Éditions Amaterra, 2015, 28 pp.
Munsch, Robert. We Share Everything! Scholastic, 1999, 32 pp.
Rousseau, Lina, and Marie-Claude Favreau. Tartine apprend à partager. Éditions Dominique et compagnie, 2016, 24 pp.
Van Zeveren, Michel. C’est à moi, ça! École des loisirs, 2009, 36 pp.