Q: My 19-month-old daughter and I go to a playgroup once a week. Last week my daughter grabbed a car out of her friend’s hands. Her friend started to cry. When I made my daughter give the car back, she started to cry. It was a mess. How can you get little kids to share?
A: Just the other day I had a similar experience—not with toddlers, but with my own 12- and 10-year-olds! What this tells you is that learning to share is a process that can start now but that takes a long time to master.
Toddlers are determined little people who know what they want and work hard to get it. Unfortunately, they don’t yet have the words they need to express their strong feelings, so they communicate through action. Children this age are also not able to put themselves in other people’s shoes. This is why it’s hard for them to share. They only know what they feel, not what others feel. They’re thinking, I want that car and I want it now!
A final complicating factor is that 19-month-olds don’t yet have the impulse control to stop themselves from doing something they want to do, even if they have been corrected countless times. For all of these reasons, most children don’t really share until they’re at least 2 1/2 to 3 years old.
However, you don’t have to nor should you wait until your child is 2 to start helping her learn to share. When you are playing, show her how to take turns: She adds a block, then you add one. At clean-up time, take turns putting the toys back on the shelf. At bedtime, switch off who gets to flip the pages. Through these interactions, your daughter will experience sharing as part of a positive, loving relationship, which sets the stage for turn-taking in other relationships.
Here are some strategies to try to help your daughter and her friends practice sharing:
• Before a friend comes over, let your child choose and put away just a few toys that are special and that she does not have to share.
• Provide several of the same kinds of toys so there’s enough for everyone.
• Comment when the children are playing cooperatively: I like how you gave Ellie the doll she wanted.
• Let them know you understand how hard it is to share. Tell them that grabbing is not okay and offer alternatives such as helping them choose another toy while they wait their turn.
• Provide activities that don’t necessarily require sharing—like art projects or playing with water or sand. Playing with open-ended materials is calming and gives children a break from the stress of sharing.
• Keep the turns short and use a timer to help children know when their turn will come. (Often kids become so amused by the idea of the timer that they forget about the fight over the toy.)
• As your daughter grows, include her in the problem-solving. When she and a friend are having trouble sharing, ask for their ideas on a fair resolution.