behavior development parenting

Toddlers and Sharing: Tips for Parents

toddlers playing sharing turn taking

One of the most frequent question I get from parents is "how do I get my toddler to share?"  I wish I had a quick and easy solution, but, alas, sharing is a complex concept for toddlers and preschoolers to understand.  As a matter of fact, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children under three are not able to understand sharing. It is estimated by some early childhood experts that sharing skills develop around 3.5 to 4 years of age (MacLaughlin, 2017).  

How can this be you may be asking?  A big factor is a social emotional stage that toddlers are going through called egocentrism.  As such, they have not yet developed the ability to understand others perspectives.  When they take a toy from another child, they don't have the ability to understand that their action made the other child angry or sad.  This comes with time, practice and feedback from loving and caring adults.

If you want to learn more about toddler social emotional development, check out my YouTube video.  Understanding what drives challenging toddler behaviors makes it much easier for us to implement developmentally appropriate interventions.  In my experience, when we fail to take the time to understand our child's brain development, we expect far too much from them leading to frustration for all parties involved.

Okay, so what can you do to help move your child towards sharing?  Here are my top tips:

Use the phrase 'turn taking' instead.  Again, sharing is a complex concept for little ones.  Think about it this way:  when we share a cookie, we never get it back.  How confusing for a young child!  You want me to share my toys?  Um, that would be a hard no.   Instead, try using the phrase 'turn.'  The best way to teach this is during play with you.  Take turns with crayons or cars during play.  In the beginning, you will need to keep your turn VERY short until they start to realize that they will get the toy back.  Here are some additional tips for teaching turn taking:

  • Start with just one toy, e.g., a car.  You take the car and say 'my turn' and roll it on the floor a few times before handing it to your child to say 'your turn.'  Let them play with the car for a bit before saying 'my turn' and taking the car back.  This is where they get ticked as they don't understand what is happening.  Make your turn super short, like 2-3 seconds before handing the car back saying 'your turn!'  
  • Make sure you allow them enough time to play with the toy.  If you take it away too quickly for your turn, they are going to get frustrated and either have a meltdown or disengage from the activity.
  • Crayons are a great way to work on turn taking.  Toddlers love to have ALL the crayons.  Start out with a crayon for them and a crayon for you.  When they go to take your crayon, say 'oh, you want a turn with my crayon?  Then I'll take a turn with your crayon' handing them yours and taking theirs.  They are usually pretty surprised by this and will continue to try to take yours.  Just keep repeating the process.  They will get it eventually.
  • When they go to grab the toy/object from your hands, model what you would like them to do when they want a toy, eg, putting their hand out.  I like to take the toddler's hand and touch their chest saying 'me?' then handing them the toy quickly.  This is a great way to help them learn a higher level of communication during play interactions.  Over time as your toddler's understanding of this interaction increases, you may start to make your turn longer using a phrase like "Mommy's not done with her turn yet" using the toy for just a few more seconds and then giving it to your child.  This will help them to learn that just asking for a turn doesn't mean they will get it right away.
  • Always do what feels right in your parent gut.  Not all toddlers are going to be ready for this kind of strategy.  We don't want to turn the process into a power struggle that turns them off from interacting with play partners.  Follow their lead and take baby steps as they are ready.  A beginning step in this instance may be to focus on modeling actions and words that you would ultimately like them to imitate, e.g., 'me?' while touching your chest or while extending your hand, etc

Tips for Playdates and Siblings:  Once you have done some practicing of turn taking with your toddler, you are ready to introduce it during play interactions with siblings and peers.  Now having said that, this concept is going to be significantly more challenging with siblings.  There is often a history with their siblings and that can take some time to reprogram.  

  • Be a moderator.  You will need to be present and observe while your toddler plays with other peers or siblings, stepping in as needed to model the actions you worked on during your practice sessions.  Model the actions for all the kids involved in the play situation so they may all learn how to communicate what they want. Only step in as needed.  You want to give them a chance to see how they are going to resolve these situations.  
  • Get older siblings on board.  If your child has older siblings, incorporate them into your practice sessions.  I always ask older sibs if they would like to be a teacher for their younger brother or sister.  They almost always say yes!  Helping them understand why it is important and how to do it can really speed the process up for kiddos.
  • If you have a child over for a playdate, select some toys for them to both play with in an area outside of your child's bedroom.  There have been many occasions where a toddler has gotten upset that their play partner is rifling through all their stuff and touching their favorite items.  Imagine as an adult if someone we kinda knew came into our house and just started going through our closets and touching our stuff.  We'd be upset and we have a lot more life experience and coping skills.  Planning for a playdate with select toys or activities can avoid a lot of unnecessary stress for some tots.
  • If you have a younger child who is in the exploration stage, find somewhere for your toddler/preschooler to do their activity where they won't be disturbed.  For example, when my son was three, he liked to build lego towers in the living room.  Our daughter was just beginning to walk and always interfered with his play much to his disgust.  We told him he could build his legos at the table or do it in his room adding that the living room was a family zone and that any play that occurred there was open to all parties.  This did the trick.  Sometimes he remained in the living room allowing his sister to join his play begrudgingly and other times he took his project off to the kitchen table.  
  • When your child does take a toy from another child causing them to cry, try saying this:  "We don't take toys from other kids because it makes them sad.  We need to give it back (providing physical prompts to your child while handing the toy back)."  If your child is not upset, you could further model 'Would you like to ask him for a turn?' and then coach him through the request.  If the child doesn't want to give him a turn, you can try redirecting saying "I guess he's not done with it,  Let's go find another toy to play with."  Do you see how practicing turn taking at home first can make even a situation like this easier for your child?  Remember, repetition is the key to learning for young children.  The more you practice it, the stronger the neural pathways you are building.

So there you have it!  My top tips for helping littles with the concept of sharing.  As always, if you have any questions or suggestions for blog posts, you can reach me here.  If you are looking for more toddler development tips, strategies and activities, be sure to head over to my YouTube channel.  Until next time, my friend :)