Q: My 3 year old son is generally a sweet kid but he’s a beast when it comes to sharing! I model it at home and we practice it together when we play, but he just won’t do it with other kids. Trying to encourage sharing in the moment hasn’t helped – he just seems to dig his heels in faster and harder now. I don’t want him to be seen as unfriendly or a bully so I usually end up making him give his toy to the other kid but that makes the situation worse and feels hypocritical to me since I don’t want him to learn to yank things away from others. What’s the best way to teach him to share?
A: Anyone with a kid (or two, or three) knows that unfortunately, sharing is not something that comes naturally and easily to us humans. But it’s a crucial life skill (indeed, civilization would have died off long ago were it not for sharing) and one well worth teaching to our children. When we talk about sharing we’re talking about something more than just handing our item over to someone else, no questions asked. Because really, we wouldn’t want our kids to learn that for the real world. Sharing refers to skills for both parties, including communication skills, assertiveness, empathy to some extent, waiting patiently, and negotiation skills. When you think about it, it’s pretty complex and no wonder children struggle to do it gracefully!
Toddler possessiveness is a normal part of development. It stems from anxiety that occurs when one thinks they don’t or won’t have what they need. So when your son is freaking out because he wants that truck the other kid is using, he feels he needs that toy in order to be okay. If this seems hard to understand, think back to a time in life when you thought you’d be okay if only this person liked you, or you had more money, or a particular job, etc. We’ve all been there. But toddlers have a disadvantage by virtue of having less life experience and therefore less insight and fewer skills. Not only are they often used to playing with their own toys for as long as they want at home (depending partly on whether they have siblings), but they may be particularly possessive when they’re feeling unsure about a new situation or are out of their routine and therefore need a sense of control and security. Or when they’re tired. Or hungry. Or sick. Or not getting their way. Or it’s Tuesday. You get my drift.
I can appreciate your dilemma with wanting your child to share with friends and sometimes, against your better judgment, forcing him to share to help him avoid unwanted social consequences. I agree with you that when we do that we aren’t sending the message we want to send. Rather than teaching social and emotional benefits, forced sharing reinforces the belief that they need to be anxious and protective of their stuff because it might get yanked away, and furthermore that it’s okay to snatch from someone if you want something they have.
So what to do instead? First, consider standing back and seeing what happens. Even young children often find a way to resolve social conflict naturally but it doesn’t necessarily come quickly or easily. I know it can be so hard to see our children struggle but struggle is not the same as suffering. We grow through struggle, and when we save someone from struggle we deprive them of that growth opportunity. Remember that the purpose in these interactions isn’t to avoid difficult feelings at any cost. The purpose is to help our children develop insights and skills for the rest of their lives.
If the conflict looks like they’re heading into dueling tantrum mode consider jumping in as coach for either or both children. Non-judgmentally narrating what is occurring can help them develop social awareness. Start with observational narration: “He’s using the crayon to draw his picture.” Use empathy to help the child feel understood: “I can see that you really want that crayon.” Ask questions like, “I wonder if he was finished with that? What do you think he would say if we asked him?” Help build emotional intelligence by naming emotions: “You are angry.” “He looks sad.” Encourage social skills: “What could we do to help him feel happy?” If things don’t take off from there, suggest playing together with the toy. If that falls flat you could suggest the concept of swapping (especially helpful when a much younger child is involved, for instance a toddler taking a toy from a baby) and turn-taking. When guiding turn-taking, allow the child with the toy to determine how long his turn lasts (chances are he won’t need a very long turn once the wrestling match has stopped). Work with the other child on patience, helping him find something else to engage in while he waits his turn. Continue to empathize and support: “I know it’s hard to wait. I’ll help you” (this compassion might help him feel safe enough to cry even harder and get those big feelings out, or he might feel heard and understood and relax immediately). And then when your child does try out any of these skills remember to praise him for his hard work and kindness.
Though what you might want to do these days is avoid situations where sharing will be an issue, it’s important for your son to be exposed to sharing experiences regularly. Host play dates and prepare him by modeling and role-playing the aforementioned skills (turn-taking, “playing with”, and offering to swap). Ask him beforehand if there is a toy he will not be willing to share and then put that toy out of sight. Remind him that the other toys are for everyone to use. The more he sees that sharing is a normal occurrence and that he will be okay, and the more he can experience the benefits of sharing, the more comfortable he’ll feel when it comes up. He’ll go from a sharing beast to a prince in no time.