8 Tips on How to Teach a Child to Share

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Notorious for not sharing, children (especially young children) like to have control of their time, girl’s and boy’s favorite toddler toys and activities through the day. And while parents often struggle with finding ways how to teach a child to share, they need to understand that kids’ being territorial is a standard segment of the development process. Whether it’s refusing to share their beach toys or letting go of the steering wheel at the park, children will try to keep their autonomy at every cost. 

But, how do you, as a parent, teach your child the difference between standing up for themselves (i.e., not giving up on what they want) and being selfish and possessive (in sharing)? Is teaching kids to share possible by setting healthy boundaries, early on? It absolutely is. 

Here are a few guidelines that’ll help you comprehend your child’s possessive little mind and influence it the right way:

Understand Why Selfishness Isn’t so Harmful at the Beginning

In every child, selfishness comes before sharing because the child goes from oneness to separateness abruptly, exploring this new territory independent of their mother’s womb. Instinctively, the child feels that they need to establish an identity separate from their mother, and that’s where “selfishness” kicks in. Believe it or not, “mine” is one of the first words you’ll hear come out of a toddler’s mouth! While growing, a child is getting (strongly) attached to both things and people, helping them develop into an emotionally healthy person. Still, different times of development bring different types of attachments as priorities shift. 

A one-year-old will find it very difficult to share their mommy; a two-year-old will struggle to share their favorite drum set or a doll. In fact, when you tell a child to draw a picture of themselves, they’ll be most likely to draw a picture of themselves AND their favorite toy, because the toy becomes part of the child’s self. In essence, this selfishness isn’t necessarily your child’s bad temper; it’s a normal survival mode and a road to healthy emotional development.

When to Expect a Child to Start Sharing?

For a child to be willing to share, they need to be capable of genuine empathy. Unfortunately, children are rarely capable of real empathy before the age of six. If they share their favorite anything before that time, it’ll usually be because you’ve conditioned them to. Not before they turn two and a half or three will they have an awareness of another child, or what they want or feel. Often, they’ll embrace parallel play — playing alongside other children, strictly caring about their own possessions and their feelings. 

Expect selective sharing even at four or five years of age, and give your best to understand and protect your child’s right to his possessions.

Does This Mean Not Doing Anything to Prevent Them from Growing up into Selfish People?

Absolutely not. The key is understanding your child’s needs and balancing them out against real situations. Also, you should learn to follow your child’s cues in judging when they are ready to share, without feeling like you are taking away their independence.

A properly brought up selfish two-year-old can easily become a lovely, generous three or four-year-old who has learned to share their favorite toys and other possessions through the generosity and proper guidance.

Do Children Feel an Impulse to Share, Even Without Their Parents’ Guidance?

The more social children are, the quicker they’ll begin to see the value of sharing. Interacting with other children, they start cooperating in their play and get less sensitive about their own possessions. For the most part, children will be willing to share their stuff with someone they deem less threatening or less powerful than them (i.e., someone younger, a quiet child rather than a challenging one, a visitor rather than a sibling), helping them keep the impression of their autonomy. 

Still, you have to learn how to teach toddler to share and avoid falling into the trap of selfishness in their adult age.

Teaching Kids to Share: 8 Tips to Help out

Don’t Force a Child to Share, Teach Them How to Do It

A positive attitude in upbringing has always had better results than forceful education. Instead of scolding your child for not sharing, encourage them to share. What’s a simple toy to you may be the most valuable thing to your child – respect that difference. 

Watch your child behave in group settings (i.e., with other children) and learn ways their mind operates. This will give you an idea of the type of guidance they’ll need. If your child is always the victim (i.e., other kids pick on them, take their stuff, etc.) you need to teach them the power of saying “no.” and standing up for themselves. If they are the grabber, you’ll have to teach them how to put their guard down because otherwise other kids won’t want to play with them.

Ok, but how to discipline a toddler and teach them to share? Practice turn-taking to encourage them to interact with others appropriately and get in the habit of giving to others. For instance, hug their favorite doll, saying it’s your turn to hug it. Then hand the doll over to your child and say, “Now it’s your turn to hug the doll.” Keep the game going for a while to teach your child that, just because you have their favorite item for a while, doesn’t mean they won’t get it back.

Get Connected

Following research on generosity in children, it’s observed that children who have received it growing up have developed into individuals who like to share themselves. They follow the model, and sharing feels unquestionably natural to them. What is more, a child that has been on the receiving end of kindness and generosity is more likely to have a healthy self-image because they need fewer things to validate their self-worth. Also, children who have been shared with by their parents and who have felt what it looks like to receive love, support, exchange objects with their parents, receive affection through fun and engaging toddler activities or just plain healthy interaction, etc. have been shown to rather reach for mother’s hand than cling to an object (e.g., a toy, blanket, etc.).

Model Generosity When You Teach Your Child to Share

You know what they say – Monkey see, monkey do. If little monkey sees big monkey share, they’ll model the behavior. 

Make it a teachable moment every time someone asks to borrow one of your “toys.” For instance, if your friend comes over to borrow a book, explain it to your child that “Mommy/Daddy is sharing their book with her friend.” If your child is young, you can go on to explain that you will get the book back when your friend is done reading it. Also, share things with your child for one-on-one sharing lesson: “Come sit with us — we’ll make room for you.”, “Want some of my chocolate?” “Want to try my plate? I’ll give you some of mine if you give me some of yours.”

If you have several children, there’ll be times when there isn’t enough of something for everyone. To avoid having any of your children feel left out or less important, try to be an equal opportunity parent as much as possible. Teach them that, in life, not always will they get the same amount of something as their siblings/people close to them, and that such situation is not the end of the world. Next time, they’ll get their portion fairly.

Avoid Labeling Possessions

Every parent cringes when they hear their child scream, “Mine!” whether it’s when someone else tries to play with their toys or when a parent tries to get engaged in any type of play. One of the best ways to deal with toddler tantrums and avoid the possessive nature of a child’s play is to change this habit. How? By not saying what items belong to whom and making toys (and non-toys, too!) communal you’re encouraging collective ownership rather than a single person possession. 

For example, if your child tries to play with the remote control, don’t say, “That’s not yours.” Stick to phrases like “We don’t play with the remote control.” Or, if they get a toy as a present, don’t give it to them and say “This is your new toy”; instead, go with something like “This is a new toy to play with, let’s see what we can make of it.”

When You See Your Child Is Sharing, Praise Them

Positive reinforcement is the best way to instill values in children. Rather than actively scolding them when they are not sharing, make sure you praise them whenever you see them share their stuff with another child or a grown up. No one likes feeling bad about what they did or didn’t do; in that manner, your child will learn quicker if they are celebrated when they do the right thing.  

This applies to every positive thing they do, not just sharing. No matter how small the positive gesture they make, make sure you point it out. Whether it’s telling them “Mommy appreciates you being a good girl and letting us talk without interrupting” or “You did an excellent job helping your brother with homework,” the child will pick up on positivity and remember it as the best model behavior.

Don’t Solve Your Child’s Social Conflicts

Every parent’s first instinct when they hear the children fight is to rush into the room and resolve the dispute. After all, it’s what a “good parent” should do, right? Well, maybe not quite. 

Whether they are arguing with their siblings or other kids, children need to learn to find a solution among themselves. This is how they learn to negotiate (yes, believe it or not, this is where it starts), and share what feels dear to them. Kids are a lot cleverer than we give them credit; one of the best lessons to teach them is how to share by letting them come up with their own solutions to sharing.

But what if it goes too far? Next time you hear them fight, give them a few moments to try and work it out before you jump in. You’d be surprised that children very quickly find ways to make it work for both/all of them by, say, taking turns or diving the stuff up. Other times, they just move on because they realize they don’t care much about it anymore. Other than helping them learn to share by not stepping in right away you are also teaching them the independence of action, in a sense that – they’ll discover they are capable of resolving their own conflicts without an adult.

Protect Your Child’s Interests as You Teach Your Child to Share

Being selfish with things close to their heart and being generous with other things at the same time, don’t have to be two things impossible to put together. Think of it through your own example – for instance, the fact you don’t want to share your favorite book with your best friend doesn’t mean you won’t want to share some other book, a dress, your makeup, or whatever else. The same thing is with your child. Understand if they feel strongly attached to a particular item, and respect that boundary and their need for ownership. 

To avoid socially awkward scenarios (like your kid yelling at another child for taking their toy), help your child choose which toys they will and won’t share with playmates before play begins. This applies to situations within family also, especially if you’ve got a few children and you need to work out that sibling-sharing-pattern.

Give Your Child Opportunities to Share

Don’t wait for “sharing situations” to happen – create them in your own home. For instance, give your child a cookie and ask/request they share it with their sibling: “Please give some of the cookie to Jason.” or – if you are having a play together, ask your toddler to share their tablet with you by politely asking “Can I please have your tablet for 30 minutes?”. This will work perfectly even if you have more kids, where one can learn to share from the other on the same model.

Even though not sharing is a normal part of your child’s development, it can still be one of the most challenging and frustrating things for you to deal with. Yet, by employing small but effective changes in their everyday behavior and learning how to navigate situations, your child will learn healthy boundaries and routines that’ll help them grow into a responsible and easy-to-function with individuals.

Author: Mary Lynn Holden
Author: Mary Lynn Holden

Proud mom and stepmom to an adorable bunch of kids aged 7 and up. Deeply appreciates three things in life: the help of older siblings in the house, texts on parenting, and strong coffee. Shares her stories and experiences in order to help others navigate the unpredictable waters of parenting.

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