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Teaching a child to share

Dr Lawrence Kutner Ph.D

I watched as the five-year-old girl stood near the edge of the river. She and her father had purchased some bread and were offering small pieces to the two-dozen seagulls that had flown over for the feast. The hungry birds faced into the wind with an eye on their benefactors, seemingly hovering until the girl tossed some bread into the air. The two or three closest gulls would swoop down and try to catch the crusts.

One seagull was more aggressive—and more successful—than the others were, pushing the other birds aside as he dove for the food. The girl, who was enjoying the sight (and her newfound power) immensely, suddenly became upset. She scolded the aggressive bird, using words she had probably heard at home and in school many times: "You're not sharing!"

We value sharing tremendously in our culture. We associate it with maturity, empathy, and social competence. Parents talk to their children about it repeatedly. Preschool teachers constantly remind children to share, and seek out opportunities for them to practice. Yet many young children find the concept difficult and confusing. To understand why, you have to think of sharing from a young child's point of view.

To toddlers, possession is ten-tenths of the law. Having just mastered the concept of ownership, they see little reason to relinquish anything. They do not yet understand that something they give away may be returned to them. In fact, there are many times when we ask children to share something when we really mean they should give it away and not expect it to be returned. When we ask a three-year-old to share his box of cookies, we each know that he's losing some of them permanently. This is very different from asking a child to share his toys.

Although sharing is confusing and upsetting to toddlers, many preschoolers find it fascinating. When they're left to themselves, their conversations often focus on who owns what and who will share things. It is an introduction to the craft of negotiation.

As with younger children, preschoolers are most comfortable sharing a toy if they do not value it highly. (There are times, however, when the apparent value of a toy rises dramatically because the child has been asked to share it. The change may reflect how secure the child is feeling at that moment.) Also, it is easier to share a stuffed animal or a puzzle if he can still keep an eye on it or play with it alongside the borrower. Quantity also plays a role. A child is much more likely to share a crayon or a toy car if there are others in the box.

Children this age are very concerned with fairness—which is generally defined as seeing that no one got more than they did. (From a preschooler's perspective, if he got more than the other children did, that would be perfectly fair, too!) If a teacher apportions blocks to several children so that one group could build a large castle and the other a small house, they will often check to make sure the blocks were distributed equally. It does not matter if one project requires more blocks than the other does. The concept of sharing according to individual needs is too sophisticated for most preschoolers.

This natural drive to compare at this age can be seen in other areas of home life as well. A four-year-old may insist on the same size portion of dessert as his fifteen-year-old brother, even though he couldn't possibly finish it. He may become upset if the box his Christmas or Hanukkah present comes in is smaller than his brother's—even if the presents are essentially the same.

One way you can see how well two preschoolers understand the concept of sharing is to present them with a problem to solve. Begin by placing a large cookie on a plate between them. Tell each child that the only way she can eat the cookie is if the other child gives it to her. Many children this age will become stuck, with each insisting that the other give her the cookie. Only a few will figure out that they can break the cookie in half and share it.

Teaching a child to share

Sharing takes both practice and comfort. Here are some things you can do to encourage your children to share:

  • Don't expect too much too early.

Remember that when you ask your child to share a toy, you're really asking him to take a risk by giving up something that's precious. If you push too hard, all you're teaching your child is to comply with authority.

  • Play sharing games together.

For very young children, you might want to start by modeling the behavior you want. Give your toddler a stuffed animal, and then ask for it back. Once he's comfortable with this, ask him to give you one of his stuffed animals. Hold on to it for a few seconds, keeping it in plain sight, before giving it back to him. That gives your child practice with simple reciprocity and reinforces the notion that something he shares will not be taken away forever.

There's evidence that some aggressive older children may not have had enough experience with this type of simple reciprocity. The idea of giving something up is more threatening to them because they don't truly believe that they'll get it or something similar in value back.

  • Don't force your child to share everything.

Some possessions are so emotionally laden that they should retain their special status. Also, don't ask your toddler or preschooler to bring her favourite toy to school or childcare. Remember that children in those environments view all toys as common property. Your child may find it too threatening to have other children insisting on playing with her most valuable possession.

  • Don't worry if your child occasionally refuses to share.

As with so many things at this age, individual instances are much less important than a general pattern. It's perfectly normal for a toddler or preschooler to go through periods of intense possessiveness, especially if that child is feeling stressed. But if a child over the age of three never shares his toys, or always treats such sharing as a traumatic event, it's probably a sign of severe insecurity about not only what they own, but where they fit into their family or school.

Dr. Lawrence Kutner is one of America's best-known speakers, writers, broadcasters and psychologists specialising in families and children. Dr Kutner is a child behaviour columnist and contributing editor of Parenting, BabyTalk and Family Life magazines, ParentTime.com and Pampers.com, and the former child behaviour columnist for the New York Times and Parents magazine. Dr Kutner is also a member of the psychiatry faculty of Harvard Medical School, an international consultant, and the author of five books on making sense of children's behaviours. You can read more insightful articles written by Dr Kutner by visiting his website