Teaching Your Toddler How To Share


If you’ve spent any length of time around toddlers then you’re probably familiar with their rules of possession. I can basically sum it up with “MINE! MINE! MINE!” Many toddler play dates are riddled with tears, screams, and sometimes all out brawls when toys are on the line. Parents are desperate to find a way to explain to their tots that it’s important to share their toys with visiting friends. But since two year olds have more in common with the stereotypical Neanderthal than they do civilized Homo sapiens, explaining this concept to them can be an exercise in futility. I have found that a little empathy goes a long way in figuring out how to communicate with my child.

Put yourself in their position. Imagine you invite a dinner guest over. As soon as they enter, they go straight to your bedroom and rifle through your drawers and closet, trying on your clothes and shoes until they find something they like. They might even go as far as pulling things off of you to put on themselves. As you start to protest this invasion, your spouse stops you and scolds you for not happily sharing your belongings with others. Dinner continues and now your guest is periodically taking your fork out of your hand so they can eat their food with it and even drinking out of your cup. Again you let it be known that you’re not ok with this but everyone insists you’re being silly and should be happy to make your guest comfortable by giving them your things to use. Now at the end of the night the guest decides to clean up by brushing with your toothbrush. Before you can even say anything your spouse has pushed you onto the couch so you can’t step in and has told you once again how you need to share with your friends. At this point you’d feel so frustrated, upset, and violated that you’d probably blow up.

Now you’re getting a sense of why your toddler acts the way they do when a friend comes in and takes over their playroom while you keep insisting to them that it’s ok. Instead of forcing my two year old to willingly hand over everything he owns to every kid that walks in our door, I try to respect his feelings about his belongings and take a different approach. Every child is different and responds to different approaches so not all of these will be helpful in every situation but here are some of the tips that have worked the best for us so far.

1. Don’t have sentimental or favorite toys out when guests are coming over.

Before the play date even arrives I will put away any especially favorite toys that I know he is particularly possessive of and would be upset if someone tried to take them. If your child is a bit older, you can ask them to help you put out the toys they will most want to have their friends play with. Give them a sense of having some choices when it comes to their belongings and they might not feel as much of a need to have total dominance over every single item. We also do not take favorite toys to other people’s houses unless we are prepared to let others have a turn with it.

2. Offer a variety of each toy.

If possible, I have a variety of whatever toys I do have out to play with. For example, I don’t have just one toy car on the track or just one ball. When another child tries to grab a toy car out of my son’s hand I don’t tell him he has to hand over the one he is playing with. I tell him he can keep his if he chooses another car to hand to the child.

3. Focus on taking turns and less on “sharing”.

I do not tell him to “give” his toys to others or even to “share” a toy. I call it “taking turns”. This friend is only borrowing your toy for a short time and then you will get to have it back again. Explaining and practicing the routine of taking turns gets your child familiar with the feeling that handing a toy over doesn’t mean they lose it forever. This does take practice which brings me to my next point.

4. Practice taking turns with them when no other children are present.

I work a lot on teaching him how to wait while I have a turn with his toy so he can see that it will be handed back to him for another turn if he patiently waits. If my son is having a hard time being patient we will count or sing a song until the next turn. This gives him an end point in mind as well as a distraction during the waiting. You can even use a timer for this. We also do exaggerated cheering while watching each other take turns as well as when we watch his friends take a turn. Sometimes he’s so eager to get to clap and yell again that he’ll excitedly hand the toy over just for another chance to cheer. This also enforces with him how much fun sharing can be so he actually wants to do it instead of only doing it to avoid getting in trouble. I try to constantly model sharing during interactions I have with him and with other family members in front of him, pointing out how nice it is when someone hands me the salt at the table or when Daddy gives me a turn on his phone. I let him see how excited it makes me when he gives his stuffed teddy bear his ball to play with. The idea is to let him practice sharing his things in less threatening situations so that when other kids are actually there it’s not as alien a concept.

5. Only intervene when absolutely necessary.

It’s hard to sit by and watch two toddlers start a tug-o-war over a toy and not speak up or take it out of their hands immediately. But unless there is eye gouging or other unacceptable signs of things being too escalated, it’s probably not necessary or even helpful for the parents to step in every single time. I try to give them a chance to work it out between them first. It often turns out that one toddler actually doesn’t care that much in the end and gives up the toy and goes onto another. Problem is over peacefully. They can’t learn to settle disagreements on their own if we never give them a chance to try. I’ve been surprised more than once by how kids can find a compromise when I least expect it.

6. Meltdowns are inevitable.

Tears and tantrums are going to happen from time to time. It’s alright, it’s not the end of the world. Ok, well they sure are acting like it’s the end of the world but you don’t have to agree with them. Don’t let it spoil the whole play date and do not try to reason with a toddler in the middle of screaming crying tantrum. Their brains shut down when the emotions take over. Just remove them from the room for a minute and let them collect themselves a bit first. Once the screeches reach a tolerable decibel you can try to start some calming techniques (deep breathing, counting, or whatever else you’ve established helps your child unwind) and then talk about going back in with a new attitude. If a particular toy has become such an issue that taking turns or any other compromise continues to lead to tantrums or fights, I remove it temporarily.

7. Have reasonable expectations.

Remember that the concept of sharing belongings is a developmental step that takes time and practice. So don’t get upset if your child isn’t able to happily do it at every play date right from the start. We can’t expect a two year old to have the maturity that I’ve seen lacking in grown men playing video games. and just like the dinner guest example we can’t expect them not to have personal boundaries. I like to make him comfortable with the idea of sharing some toys instead of trying to force him to suddenly become a Buddhist monk who has no needs for personal possessions. I think frustrations often happen when we expect more of our children’s behavior than we would of ourselves. Overall, I try not to make play time a frustrating punishment by scolding and lecturing about sharing the entire time. That will only put him on the defense the moment he sees other children approaching because he would think a play date means having to give up everything he loves. It’s supposed to be fun and being forced to hand over every toy that you’re enjoying just is not much fun. It does take time for them to understand these concepts and it can be frustrating for everyone involved. But if you keep using empathy to see things from your toddler’s perspective and keep working together with them, it will be worth it for everyone in the end.

Teaching your toddler how to share

2 Responses to Teaching Your Toddler How To Share

  1. Danielle Ericsson Reply

    Great tips on sharing! I especially liked the tip to practice taking turns when no other kids are over. Great suggestion!

  2. Pingback: #TakingCareThurs-The Boy Who Wouldn’t Share | Be The Difference | A Blog by Author Maria Dismondy

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