Learning to share is an important social skill for children. They will learn about compromise, how to take turns and negotiate and how to express their feelings. Toddlers and children need to learn how to share in order to make and keep friends and play cooperatively at play dates, nursery and then at school. In the long term, learning to think of others’ needs teaches empathy, kindness and generosity and will bring your child deeper friendships and the joy that comes from sharing something with others.
You can help your child learn to share by giving them plenty of time and opportunities to practise. Encourage good sharing with specific praise and by modelling sharing yourselves—children learn best by copying you, their parent.
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Here are six specific ways you can help your child learn to share.
1. DO introduce the word ‘share’ to your toddler with positive praise
Toddlers demonstrate “proto-sharing”—showing an object to other people and allowing them to handle it without quite letting go. Though it may not seem so, it’s a big step toward sharing, so reinforce it: “That’s nice of you to show Jane your doll.” Later, when he’s started playing with something else, you could suggest he pass the doll to his friend, and praise him when he does. Whether Jane wants the toy at this point is not as important as practising the act of sharing—and being rewarded for it.
Throughout the day, offer your toddler opportunities to do things together and use the word “”share” to describe your behaviour: “Do you want to share my biscuit? I’d love to share it with you. Why don’t you share your toys with your sister? Well done.”
Play cooperative games, consciously demonstrating sharing and using the word ‘share’, like ‘my turn, now your turn’ putting jigsaw puzzle pieces in, building towers or kicking a ball between each other.
When your child attempts to share, praise their efforts. Little by little, they’ll feel good about repeating those actions that make you so happy. Before long, they’ll start sharing because it comes naturally.
2. DON’T punish your child for not sharing
Yes, it can be socially embarrassing at a playgroup or play date when your child snatches a toy or throws a tantrum because they can’t understand why it’s not always their turn. But using words like “selfish” and “greedy”, or forcing them to hand over a prized possession just because you say so, may give the message that sharing has negative consequences.
Bear in mind that your child is probably not being deliberately mean or rude by refusing to share. Simply explain to the other parent that sharing is a work in progress and, if they are having a meltdown, calmly remove your child from the conflict area until they are calmer. Let them know you’re disappointed and sad when they doesn’t share, but don’t turn sharing into a parent-child conflict. Rest assured that as they mature, they’ll learn that playing with friends—and the give and take that it involves—is much more fun than playing by themselves.
3. DO accept there are some objects your child won’t want to share
Would you want to share your laptop or your favourite jacket just because someone told you to? Probably not. So it seems fair enough that we shouldn’t expect children to hand over their prized possessions without qualms to friends, siblings, and even complete strangers. If your child is hosting a play date, give him preemptive control by putting away a favourite toy or comfort blanket in a safe place.
Then ask your child to think of some things that would be fun for them and their guest to play with together, alongside each other or taking turns, such as drawing, walkie-talkies, or with a ball. Ask their friend to bring along a few toys too, so your child isn’t the only one sharing.
4. DO teach your child how to put feelings into words
Despite the social pressure to be ‘good at sharing’, sharing is all about thinking of others, kindness and generosity—not simply a tick for ‘good parenting’.
When your toddler or preschooler squabbles with another child over a toy, before it becomes a heated tug-of-war, try to explain how the other child may be feeling. For example, “Joe really likes that truck, and he’s just started playing with it. Can you find something else to play with? What about this red truck?”.
Help your preschooler put their own feelings into words and reassure them that you understand their emotions. For example, “you sound like you feel sad” or “you’re looking a bit disappointed.” Reassure them that sharing isn’t the same as giving away and that if they share with friends, they’ll be likely to reciprocate.
Use the word “share” for actions and feelings when your child is thinking about another person too, not just about objects. For example, when your child takes turns with friends on playground equipment rather than pushing in, or waits patiently to watch a favourite TV programme after a sibling’s own favourite.
As your child gets older, encourage them to see things through the other person’s eyes, from a different perspective to their own, as a vital step to caring about others’ feelings. You might say, “how do you think he feels when you won’t let him play?” or “how would you feel if someone wouldn’t let you have a go?”
5. DO set a good example
The best way for your child to learn generosity and kindness is to see you sharing every day, whether it’s sharing your ice-cream or giving them your gloves when it’s cold. It’s essential you recognise and praise your child’s sharing behaviour when you see it. Simply saying “I love the way you’re giving Joe a turn” will make your child eager to carry on sharing—and Joe eager to show he can too.
6. DO resist the temptation to intervene when kids are working it out for themselves
You can build your preschooler’s sharing skills by praising good turn-taking and talking about other children’s wants and feelings to help her learn to see other children’s points of view. But there comes a time, around reception age, when children can understand the concept of other people’s feelings and the idea of sharing and are learning patience. They will also have an increasing sense of fairness—remember when you used to insist your mother counted out sweets into individual piles for you and your siblings?—and of playing by the rules. While you can continue before and after school to talk about how your child is feeling and offer suggestions for settling disagreements between friends, you need to let your child and her friends work it out for themselves. They will do.